Victims of parental kidnapping cry out for help in Ukraine
It started out as a fairytale.
Olha Kudryk says she was on top of the world when she got engaged to her then-boyfriend Serhiy Kudryk in 2002. Four years after they got married, she gave birth to their son Yaroslav.
But in 2015, Kudryk’s husband asked for divorce and custody over their son to escape conscripted service in the Ukrainian army. Kudryk says she agreed to the divorce, never imagining her ex-husband would kidnap their child.
“I was in shock,” Kudryk says. “I came to my ex-husband’s house to see Yaroslav, but nobody was home.”
According to Kudryk, her ex-husband, his new wife and Yaroslav have since relocated to Kyiv from the small town in Lviv Oblast where they used to live. She has made several trips to the capital looking for her child but with no success.
“Every day I think about how my child is doing out there,” Kudryk told the Kyiv Post. “All I want is to be with him.”
Kudryk says being deprived of her child has been a nightmare for her. Her son has autism and requires special treatment.
The Kyiv Post reached out to Serhiy Kudryk but never heard back.
Some 100,000 divorces are registered in Ukraine every year, 70% of which lead to court hearings, according to the analytics service Opendatabot. Experts say that thousands of parents end up separated from their children as a result.
Parents can spend years looking for ways to reunite with their kids, unable to rely on the authorities for help. Ukraine’s Criminal Code does not classify the abduction of a child by a parent as a crime.
In the battle for reuniting with their children, Ukrainian parents depend on non-governmental organizations and public support.
Kudryk says that even though she had all the proper legal documentation proving her right to take part in Yaroslav’s upbringing, the police regard the issue as a “private family matter.”
“It feels like shouting in a deaf ear,” she says.
Most divorces in Ukraine lead to court hearings. They can take years.
The process is especially tough for families with children that can’t agree on joint custody — parental abduction often becomes the result of a conflict when one parent violates a custody agreement and takes away a child.
While both mothers and fathers have equal rights to their common child’s upbringing in Ukraine, the number of appeals of violations of one of the parent’s rights to custody is growing every year, Ukraine’s ombudswoman Liudmyla Denisova told BBC Ukraine in 2020.
Iryna Suslova, adviser to the head of the parliament’s human rights committee, says there is no clear established system in dealing with parental abduction.
According to recent research by Alinea International, 73% of employees of children’s services do not consider the procedure clear in cases where a child is abducted by a parent.
And nearly 88% of employees of Ukraine’s child services and 85% of employees of juvenile prevention units see the need to change the legislation on responding to cases of abduction.
“There is no responsibility for this (parental abduction), there is no article (in the Criminal Code) concerning it,” Suslova told the Kyiv Post. “We see a vicious circle of inaction.”
Hope for justice
Suslova, who is also the head of a women’s organization connected to the Za Maibutne (“For the Future”) political party, says she wasn’t aware of the problem until recently when a woman whose child was kidnapped by the father asked the organization for help.
After posting the woman’s story on Facebook, Suslova got dozens of responses from women all over Ukraine with similar stories.
Suslova arranged a meeting for the victims of parental kidnapping with Dmytro Lubinets, the head of the parliament’s human rights committee. Suslova says that just like her, Lubinets wasn’t aware of the problem.
“There is absolutely no understanding from the government of these situations,” Suslova says.
In May, a group of lawmakers submitted a draft law to add punishment for parental kidnapping to the Criminal Code. According to Suslova, the draft law requires the “clear punishment for the kidnapping of a child by one of the parents” — up to six years of restriction of freedom or imprisonment.
Suslova says that such responsibility should prevent future kidnappings.
In Canada, for instance, the punishment can be up to 10 years of prison for any person who kidnaps or detains their child.
Another requirement of the draft law is to oblige the courts to promptly — within two working days — consider the claims on “the unlawful displacement of a child” by one of the parents.
In Ukraine, according to Suslova, courts can take years to solve such claims.
The draft law also requires courts to provide “the right to equal participation of parents in the upbringing of a common child,” and to establish a schedule for each of the parents to spend time with their children.
According to Suslova, the draft law is now under consideration in parliamentary committees. The parliament will vote on it no sooner than September.
Until then, parents all over Ukraine have to fight for justice on their own. Kudryk is one of them; “I will keep fighting no matter what,” she said.
Community and damage
Evgeniya Zaitseva is also among the victims of parental kidnapping.
She says she hasn’t seen her two daughters since 2019 when her husband kidnapped their children and filed for divorce. The process for custody over their children is still ongoing.
According to Zaitseva, there are communities of parents whose children were abducted by the other parent.
“We try to support each other,” Zaitseva told the Kyiv Post.
There are also non-profit organizations, many of them founded by parents themselves, working to raise awareness of this problem.
One of them is Women UA, an organization that aims at defending the rights of women and children. It was founded by Ukrainian TV presenter and influencer Polina Nenia who faced this problem herself.
On its Instagram account, the organization shares stories of mothers separated from their children and the impotence of the Ukrainian law.
It is less common for men to become victims of parental kidnapping. Kharkiv resident Semen Gen has not seen his daughter in four months and is now prevented by his former wife from taking part in her upbringing.
Gen also founded a public organization, Center for Combating Parental Alienation, to spotlight the problem in Ukraine. According to him, parental alienation is a more correct and complex term than parental kidnapping.
He says that the alienating parent usually aims at destroying the child’s relationships with the other parent and the process often begins far before the actual divorce, during the “conflict phase.”
The experience affects not only the separated parent, but also the child. It can cause problems with socialization and lead to suicidal tendencies, according to Zaitseva.
Apart from legal tools, there are other ways to relieve the divorce experience for all family members, including kids. Valeria Kolomiets, the deputy minister of justice, says parents should use the help of mediators and psychologists during divorces, to prevent parental kidnapping and the damaging effects on a child’s mental health.
But simply relying on parents to follow the recommendations is not an option, as the issue requires responsibility and justice. Suslova hopes the draft law they initiated can help change the situation for the better.
“This problem applies to thousands of people, and not just adults but children who undergo mental abuse,” she says. “We need to help them.”