Six famous cases of parental abduction in Australia

Australia has one of the highest rates of international child-parental abduction. Source: Getty Images

Cases of parental child abduction are traumatic for all involved and as this week's Insight learns, can have an affect on the children at the centre of the ordeal long after the issue has been resolved.

The recent case of Brisbane mum Sally Faulkner and the botched operation to recover her two young children from their father in Lebanon has renewed attention on the issue of international parental abduction.

Australia has one of the highest per capita rates in the world of parents unlawfully kidnapping their children and fleeing with them overseas, and in the last financial year alone, there were 114 ongoing Australian applications of child abduction to Hague Convention signatories.

In the event a child is taken to a country that is a member of the Hague Convention, steps can be taken via the international agreement to mediate custody battles. However, a legal resolution becomes infinitely more difficult if this is not the case like in countries as such India, China and Lebanon. 

This week Insight is looking at how the children at the centre of international parental abductions have been affected by it. Here we look back at six historic cases that have garnered widespread media attention.

Savanna Harris Todd

In late 2013 it emerged that the 11-month-old baby at the centre of one of America’s longest running kidnapping cases had been found alive and well on the other side of the globe.

Savanna Harris Todd had been living on Australia’s Sunshine Coast unaware that she had been taken from her father in South Carolina 19 years earlier.

Prior to her 1994 disappearance, Savanna’s mother Dorothy Lee Barnett had lost a custody battle with former husband Benjamin Harris Todd after a psychological test determined she was bi-polar. Ms Barnett was on a supervised visit to Mr Harris Todd’s mother’s house when she took Savanna to a birthday party and never returned.

Under an alias, she fled to South Africa where she re-married and gave birth to a second child, before relocating to New Zealand and then Australia with her new family. Savanna - now 22 - was studying nursing at a Townsville university with the name Samantha Geldenhuys, when her true identity was discovered.

It came about through the suspicions of a friend of Ms Barnett’s second husband who heard Samantha referred to as Savanna, and after coming across missing persons reports, notified the girl’s father.

Despite saying she had no prior knowledge of her past, Savanna has continued to stand by her mother after she was arrested by FBI agents and extradited to the US. “She became the most incredible woman when she realised that she had saved me, whatever the case, she succeeded in what she wanted to do and it wasn’t easy along the way,” she told Today Tonight.

“She gave up everything that she loved, she knew and she started anew just for me.”

Iddin and Shahirah

During a scheduled custodial visit in 1992, Jacqueline Pascarl’s young son and daughter were smuggled out of Australia by their father.

Iddin and Shahirah – then aged seven and nine respectively – were taken by car from the Melbourne hotel they were staying in to the Queensland coast, where they were placed on a boat and taken to Indonesia and then Malaysia. The children weren’t seen again by their mother for 14 years, when at 21-years-old, Shahirah made her way back to Australia.

Ms Pascarl was married to Prince Raja Bahrin of Malaysia when she gave birth to their two children in the Southeast Asian country in the 1980s. She later took the pair back to her native Australia after her husband took a second wife under Islamic law.

Following their abduction, Iddin and Shahirah grew up in Malaysia without contact with Ms Pascarl until Shahirah tracked her down via the Internet as a teenager.

They were quietly communicating for three years before she flew to Melbourne in April 2006. Four months later, the mother and daughter were also joined by Iddin.

At the time of her return Shahirah was eager to catch up for time lost, telling the Sydney Morning Herald, “We are trying to make up for all the things we didn't get to do. And yeah, it's been great.”

She added to the ABC that she was unsure in which country her future lied. “I've got all these lovely people around me in both countries, and really I miss all of them, so I really can't make a choice,” she said, “I don't want to have to choose, so, I think in these days, it's easy to commute, and we'll just have to see about that.”

Three years later, Shahirah married in Melbourne.

Hannah and Cedar

At age five and three respectively, Hannah and Cedar Engdahl left their home in Canada to visit their father Joseph Hawach’s family in Sydney. Without permission from their mother Melissa, they were then taken to Lebanon and into the midst of the war raging between Hezbollah and Israel.

After pursing legal avenues in Canada, Australian and Lebanon to no avail, Ms Engdahl engaged the help of a recovery team in 2006 and while her daughters were outside playing in a field, she snatched them and fled back to Canada.

Sharing her experience of the ordeal, Hannah – now 15 – told 7.30 last month, “You’re hurting your child, it’s not healthy to take them away from their other parent, they need both their parents in their life.”

“Most kids are told that their other parent didn’t want them and that’s extremely damaging to a child at a young age or at any age knowing that your parent didn’t want you.”

While she and her sister are still in contact with their Australian father, he is unable to travel to their home in the Rocky Mountains due to outstanding criminal charges against him, meaning he can only have a limited role in their day-today lives.

The Vincenti sisters

Shocking vision emerged in 2012 of four distressed sisters being forcibly removed from their mother’s Sunshine Coast home by federal police officers. 

After spending two years in Australia, the girls - aged between nine and 15 at the time - were being sent back to Italy to live with their father Tomaso Vincenti following an international custody battle under the Hague Convention.

Their mother Laura Garrett, had married Mr Vincenti in Italy after originally meeting on a student exchange, and the pair raised their daughters in the country until their divorce in 2007. They had been granted shared custody by an Italian court but in 2010 Ms Garrett took the girls home to Queensland for a month-long holiday and never returned.

After fighting to have them returned for the duration of their 24 month stay, Mr Vincenti welcomed the girls back to Italy where they have been living ever since.

In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, the eldest two sisters Emily and Claire - now aged 17 and 18 - said that the way both parents acted in the matter was “selfish”.

“I think they were thinking more about themselves than us because we were put at the centre of this whole situation,” one of the girls said. “We went through all of this, I mean they did as well, but it was most hard for us.”

She added however, that they have happily settled into their home in Florence and still maintain contact with their mother, saying, “I’m happy with my life, Australia’s very far away but I would like to do both and both, go visit mum and her family and stay a little bit here with dad.”

Andrew Thompson

Ken Thompson quit his job as a NSW fire chief and embarked on a cycling trip around Europe in 2010 to search for his missing son. At three-years-old, Andrew Thompson had been flown out of Australia by his mother Melinda Stratton while in the midst of a custody battle.

Unsure of where the mother and son were living, Mr Thompson travelled across nine countries during his 6,500 kilometre journey during which he cycled for an average of six to eight hours a day over four months.

Wearing a jersey emblazoned with his son’s face and with the child’s favourite toy strapped to the front of his bike, Mr Thompson made pointed efforts to raise media attention everywhere he went in the hope of someone coming forward with information.

Unbeknown to his father, Andrew had been living in the Netherlands where Mr Thompson was led after an anonymous tip and after an intervention facilitated by the Australian Embassy and local police, was reunited with his boy, then aged six.

In January 2011, the pair returned to Australia and Mr Thompson told the ABC that he was glad to be home and would “like to ask the national and international media to please respect Andrew's privacy and give him a chance to be a normal, little Aussie boy.”

Gaudi

At the height of their 13-day recovery mission, 60 Minutes reporter Ray Martin drove Launceston mother Kayleen away from a crowded Barcelona cafe after she had snatched her young son.

Gaudi was just 18-months-old when he was taken from his home in Tasmania and flown to his father's native Spain during what was supposed to be a day-long custodial visit. 

After learning of their whereabouts, Kayleen followed the pair to Barcelona where she was accompanied by a 60 Minutes camera crew. In a bold move that went against local laws, she took the opportunity when her former partner went to the bathroom and collected her son from a busy cafe and disappeared with him onto the bustling streets.

Fleeing to Madrid, they spent the night in a trucker's motel before boarding a boat to Gibraltar and heading back to Australia.

Three and a half decades later Gaudi tells Tuesday's episode of Insight he has had to deal with a lot of anger as he grappled with life after the incident.  "As you mature with it and start to understand and your emotions are going crazy," he says, "you're starting to act and probably say things you wouldn't normally, that are not socially acceptable."

Despite this, Gaudi hasn't completely turned against the man who kidnapped him, saying, "I love my father, even though he did what he did and he went past the point of no return, and yeah, it's, it just causes pain." 

Insight looks at how children are affected in cases of international parental abduction | Catch up online now:


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