Girl caught in ‘ tug of love’ case

Child found in NZ af­ter van­ish­ing two years ago

Weekend Herald - - FRONT PAGE - Jared Sav­age

Ayoung girl in the mid­dle of an in­ter­na­tional “tug-oflove” bat­tle will not be re­turned to her fa­ther de­spite her mother bring­ing her to New Zealand il­le­gally.

For two years, the man — who hails from Europe and had sole cus­tody — had no idea where his daugh­ter was liv­ing un­til a so­cial me­dia cam­paign to find her went vi­ral on­line.

By chance late last year, some­one recog­nised the child in New Zealand where the girl and her mother had started a new life.

The fa­ther tracked them down and asked the Fam­ily Court to re­turn the girl to his home country un­der the in­ter­na­tional child ab­duc­tion agree­ment, the Hague Con­ven­tion.

But the Fam­ily Court — de­spite ac­cept­ing the mother un­law­fully took the girl and con­cealed her — re­fused as she was now set­tled in New Zealand.

Judge Stephen Coyle said re­turn­ing to her fa­ther would be an “in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tion” and “cat­a­clysmic” for the girl, who now con­sid­ered her­self a Kiwi.

The rul­ing was made even though the girl and her mother may now be de­ported.

The Fam­ily Court rul­ing has now been ap­pealed to the High Court by the frus­trated fa­ther, who said au­thor­i­ties in his country may also try to ex­tra­dite his for­mer part­ner.

“All I want i s to be part of my daugh­ter’s life. A child needs both par­ents,” he told the Week­end Her­ald.

Yes­ter­day, the girl’s mother po­litely de­clined to com­ment when ap­proached at her home.

The fa­ther is at a loss to ex­plain why his for­mer part­ner went to great lengths to cut him out of his daugh­ter’s life.

The courts in his country awarded sole cus­tody to him af­ter the mother re­peat­edly re­fused to let him see their daugh­ter.

“The in­grained re­sent­ment the mother holds against the fa­ther, now sig­nif­i­cantly im­pairs the mother’s abil­ity to raise her daugh­ter . . . with her ac­tions, the mother wil­fully and sig­nif­i­cantly dis­re­gards the in­ter­ests of her daugh­ter,” the Euro­pean court judg­ment said.

Sev­eral years ago she trav­elled to New Zealand with their daugh­ter.

To­gether, they started an “idyl­lic life” and the girl was en­rolled in school.

“Dur­ing this time [ the fa­ther] had no idea where his daugh­ter was,” said Judge Coyle.

“Through a co­in­ci­dence, in part helped by an ex­ten­sive me­dia and in­ter­net cam­paign . . . he was alerted to the pos­si­bil­ity that [ his daugh­ter] may be in New Zealand.”

In De­cem­ber 2016, an ap­pli­ca­tion un­der the Hague Con­ven­tion was made to the Fam­ily Court which or­dered the sur­ren­der of the daugh­ter’s pass­port.

The mother ac­cepted she had un­law­fully taken the daugh­ter, but asked the Fam­ily Court to refuse the ap­pli­ca­tion on sev­eral grounds.

One was the girl was “set­tled”, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, in her new com­mu­nity.

She was hav­ing mu­sic lessons and also in­volved in a range of other school ac­tiv­i­ties.

“To­tally happy to be a Kiwi girl, loves the out­doors, en­joys the en­vi­ron­ment,” the prin­ci­pal at her school was quoted in the judg­ment.

“She i s just amaz­ingly well ad­justed, she is neat, I wish we had more [ stu­dents like her].”

Judge Coyle agreed she was set­tled, de­spite a po­ten­tial de­por­ta­tion cloud­ing the is­sue.

Mother and daugh­ter have been served with de­por­ta­tion no­tices by Im­mi­gra­tion New Zealand, be­cause she did not tell the truth about the cus­tody ar­range­ments.

She has ap­pealed the de­ci­sion to the Im­mi­gra­tion Pro­tec­tion Tri­bunal, al­though the Fam­ily Court was told the chances of suc­cess were “min­i­mal”.

But Judge Coyle said he could not take the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue into ac­count, de­spite ac­cept­ing that “more likely than not” the ap­peals would fail.

“I have to make my de­ci­sion based on the ba­sis of the known ev­i­dence be­fore me at this point in time,” Judge Coyle wrote. “If [ the girl] sub­se­quently leaves New Zealand be­cause a de­ci­sion is made to de­port her par­ents, then that will come to pass.”

In award­ing cus­tody to the fa­ther,

Judge Coyle said the over­seas courts ruled he was not a safety risk to his daugh­ter.

The Ap­peal Court in the country also found the mother had an “on­go­ing lack of will­ing­ness” to let the fa­ther be a mean­ing­ful par­ent.

“Cer­tainly her ac­tions in re­mov­ing [ the girl] from . . . and hid­ing from him . . . mean that he has had no abil­ity to be in­volved in her life,” said Judge Coyle.

Psy­chol­ogy re­ports ac­cepted by the over­seas courts also ruled the fa­ther — not the mother — was the pri­mary at­tach­ment fig­ure.

But be­cause of the length of their sep­a­ra­tion, the mother was now her pri­mary at­tach­ment fig­ure.

And she would stay in New Zealand if the Fam­ily Court or­dered her daugh­ter to re­turn to her birth country.

Los­ing her mother and leav­ing her life in New Zealand would be “cat­a­clysmic” for the girl, said Judge Coyle.

De­spite the mother’s ac­tions in de­lib­er­ately flout­ing a for­eign court or­der and the fa­ther’s in­volve­ment in their daugh­ter’s life, Judge Coyle found re­turn­ing the girl to Europe was not in her best in­ter­ests.

Do­ing so would put her in an “in­tol­er­a­ble sit­u­a­tion”, in a psy­cho­log­i­cal sense, part of the le­gal test.

How­ever, Judge Coyle did not re- voke a pre­vi­ous court or­der pre­vent­ing the daugh­ter from leav­ing New Zealand. The judge also did not re­turn her pass­port.

This leaves the door open for the fa­ther to seek day- to- day care of his daugh­ter in New Zealand.

“There is a real risk that if I were to dis­charge that or­der, then [ the mother] may at­tempt to flee.”

How­ever, the fa­ther has ap­pealed the Fam­ily Court de­ci­sion to the High Court.

De­spite his an­guish he wants to share cus­tody in his country with his for­mer part­ner. He of­fered to let her live in one of his rental prop­er­ties.

“I don’t have any bit­ter­ness. I just want to see my daugh­ter.”

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