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British mother hasn’t seen her children in 10 years and hangs onto the ‘crumbs of their lives’ she gets in phone calls after their American father used the Hague Convention to have them returned to him in the US – as she warns the law is being misused


It has been eight years since Anita Gera last saw her children. Her daughter is now 16, her son 18.

‘He’s now legally an adult,’ she reflects soberly. ‘He’s just finished high school. His graduation was last week. So I have missed his entire childhood since the age of nine. The last birthday I spent with him was his ninth.’

Anita, 59, has been unable to see her children since August 3, 2015, after their father filed a Hague Convention claim against her. The law is supposed to protect children from international abduction by one parent, quickly returning the child to their country of ‘habitual residence’.

Over the last forty years, the Convention has helped many mothers and fathers expedite the safe return of their children. But all too often, warns Anita, the law gets it wrong.

Anita moved from the US to the UK allegedly with her partner’s consent in 2013. He cut off contact after a few months and she was left to rebuild a life for her family alone, she says. After almost a year, he ‘changed his mind’ and demanded the children return to America. When she said she wanted to allow the children to stay in school until the end of term, he filed a Hague Convention claim.

Anita’s life was forever and irrevocably changed by a single piece of legislature most people have never heard of. For nearly a decade, she has dedicated her life to learning the law and raising awareness to end the broken cycle.

Anita pictured with her children, who she has not seen in eight years. They are now 16 and 18

Anita pictured with her children, who she has not seen in eight years. They are now 16 and 18

Anita is pictured with her children, whose identity she wishes to protect, at India's Holi Festival

Anita is pictured with her children, whose identity she wishes to protect, at India’s Holi Festival

Anita met her former partner, an American entrepreneur living in Europe, while she was working in Germany as a journalist. They settled and had children, whose identity she wishes to protect, before deciding to leave Europe in 2007 and begin a new life together in America while the children were still young.

She says that there were signs of abuse before reaching the States, but within of weeks of relocation her situation was more clear. She alleges her partner became ‘controlling’ and short-tempered, telling her explicitly that she would never see her children again if she left or went against him.

Anita found herself in a desperate situation. Her children and her partner had American citizenship. She did not. She endured as her partner controlled domestic finances, absorbing her income as a journalist into his account and releasing it as he saw appropriate, she claims. 

If he disapproved of someone or something someone had said, he would cut a strong look and later forbid her from seeing them again. When friends and family came to visit, she says, he would often make it clear they were not welcome, avoiding them and busying himself with other things.

The abuse took a physical form, Anita claims. Her partner would push her, grab her hard enough to leave bruises, and would raise his fist. Anita’s partner did not hit her, she maintains, and ‘abuse’ or ‘coercive control’ were not words explored at the time.

Her children were afraid of their father, she says, and knew to behave in a certain way around him, staying quiet and not having friends over.

Still early into the move, she recalls taking her children to a hotel one night in 2007 after an outburst and receiving a barrage of threats. Again, she could leave or clash with him – but it would be the last time she saw her children.

Anita waited another six years before her partner allowed her to move to England with her children, away from him.  

‘My ex-husband said to me: “Tell everyone we’re separated so you can claim benefits” because he never gave us any money to support us. Rent a house? Yes. Put the kids in school? Yes. I’ve got emails saying all of that.

‘But then,’ she says, ‘he changed his mind. “Right, come home now.”‘

With the alleged consent of their father, Anita put her children through British schooling and started a new life. But a sudden turn tore away the foundations of stability.

When Anita wanted to allow her children to complete the school term, if not the school year, her millionaire ex went through the courts, invoking the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty used to determine which jurisdiction the children are ‘habitually resident’ in.

‘The majority of cases today are women who are living in another country with their partner and their children,’ Anita explains. ‘There is abuse in the relationship, she leaves and tries to go home and then gets slammed with a Hague Convention case and the kids are returned almost immediately.’

Anita was a stay-at-home mother working part-time as a journalist. She says her partner took control of her finances early on and released money as needed for groceries as he saw fit

Anita was a stay-at-home mother working part-time as a journalist. She says her partner took control of her finances early on and released money as needed for groceries as he saw fit

Anita Gera pictured with her children in Richmond, London

Anita Gera pictured with her children in Richmond, London

With 103 international signatories, the aim is to establish a level of trust between foreign courts whereby a child can safely be returned to the place they usually live. But often, families are more complicated, critics urge.

‘Anyone who has experience in child abuse will agree that if a child is living in a household with abuse, they are a victim of abuse themselves. The fact that they are in a household where there’s abuse means that child is exposed and should be protected from it.

‘But under the Hague Convention, there has to be a really grave risk of physical harm to the child.

‘I remember the CAFCASS officer that spoke to my children. He spent an hour with them. He said to me very proudly that he believed returning the children was really important. The judges listened to the CAFCASS officer. He was really proud of the fact that children have been sent back to war zones because The Hague Convention trumps everything.

‘It was just incomprehensible to him that [an abusive household] is a risk of grave harm to the child. He said, “no, no, it’s not a direct risk to the child. It’s just the area is dangerous.”‘

While the treaty does provide for central authorities to cooperate on the ‘safe return of the child’, the phrase is only mentioned once.

It also makes an exemption where there is ‘a grave risk that his or her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation’.

And it permits authorities to refuse a child’s return if the child objects – provided they have ‘attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views’.

But as a broad agreement bringing together the varying justice systems of more than 100 countries, these stipulations are left open and vaguely defined.

In Anita’s case, she agreed to return voluntarily to the USA with her children. In many cases, she explains, mothers are advised to return of their own volition to avoid having a ruling against them.

‘The first time we tried to get on a plane the children barricaded themselves in a bedroom and my son screamed until he passed out and said “I’d rather die than go back to America”,’ she recalled.

Anita returned to the US with her children in 2014 following the case in London. The family court case that followed in the US ‘resulted in the de facto loss of custody of her two children’ and Anita moved back to the UK, according to the Hague Mothers, a legacy project set up to amplify such stories, raise awareness and work to stop injustices perpetuated by the Hague Convention.

Soon after, Anita’s ex cut off contact again. She was left bereft. ‘I last had contact with my ex-husband in October 2016. He’s not replied to a single email since then and I’m supposed to have shared parental responsibility for my children. I’m supposed to share decisions about their healthcare, their school. I write to him several times a year. I know he’s not going to answer.

‘They are supposed to be with me for every school holiday. I write before every school holiday to say I want to have my time with my children, as ordered by the court. But he doesn’t respond.’

‘People don’t believe you,’ she says. ‘They say, “oh, but mothers always get their kids. There’s custody after divorce.” Something like that. “And how can this happen? The Court must have made a mistake.” And sadly, the court is not making a mistake. It’s doing something that is very unjust. But according to the law.’

Anita fears her children are losing their cultural heritage, as Anita is half Indian and used to celebrate Hindu festivals with them, including Diwali (pictured)

Anita fears her children are losing their cultural heritage, as Anita is half Indian and used to celebrate Hindu festivals with them, including Diwali (pictured)

Grown up: Anita's son upon his high school graduation in the states, with his sister

Grown up: Anita’s son upon his high school graduation in the states, with his sister

Anita’s son is now 18. Legally, he can choose to leave the United States to visit his mother. But after spending his life in the America, she understands it is not that simple.

It saddens Anita – who is half-Indian – that her children have grown up without knowing half their heritage. She remembers happier times celebrating Diwali with them, but cannot know what they have held onto and what has been lost with time and distance.

She speaks of the enormous turmoil the story has put on her family. Relatives see occasional photos of her children growing up in the United States, but are physically removed from the detail of their lives and identities. 

Likewise, Anita recognises her children have grown not knowing ‘about things like what I am doing with my life’.

‘It’s not just me,’ she says. ‘It affects so many people. My dad died nearly four years ago. He spent the last six years of his life not seeing his grandchildren. My mother has got Alzheimer’s and she is hoping to survive long enough to see them again.’

‘They have lost so much of their heritage. Of course, my family lost their nephew, niece, grandchild, cousins… it affects so many people.’

With their coming of age, there is some hope that Anita may see her children in person again. But her greatest concern is for their safety.

‘It’s not a good thing to even think about, but it’s a risk and that’s why I don’t try too hard to get my children to come over here – as then we’d see what their father would do.’ 

Anita knows she is not alone in her struggle. She fears that many more parents could fall into a similar situation.

‘People move abroad so much more easily these days. International families are almost becoming the norm. Everybody knows somebody in the family who’s married to someone from somewhere else, or has the opportunity to go abroad through their company, or their children go abroad to study, digital nomads…

‘But it’s so dangerous and people don’t want to know about it. You’re in love with someone and you think “we’re going to go and have an adventure together” whether you already have children or you are planning on having them later or they come along as a little happy surprise.

‘You don’t immediately think “oh, how am I going to get home now, if I get into trouble?” You don’t want to think about it. It’s like divorce. People don’t want to think about divorce when they get married. But the difference is, everybody today knows that divorce can happen. It might never happen. Hopefully it never will. But you know that divorce is a word and you know what it means.

‘But with children people don’t know that moving across international borders can mean you can’t go back. And that’s what I would like everyone to know.’

In the years since, Anita has dedicated herself to helping young families understand the full implications of the Hague Convention. She founded GlobalARRK as the ‘only charity helping stuck parents’ with support and expert guidance. Having founded Hague Explained, she runs workshops for business leaders to understand how to explain the risks to employees working overseas. Now, with Beacon – ‘a symbol of hope and warning’ -, she hopes to make the risks as clear as they understood with divorce.

Anita has also worked with the Hague Mothers, a group labelling the Convention a ‘good law gone bad’ that works with experts to ‘put right the injustices perpetuated by the Convention’.

After many years studying the law, Anita concludes it still serves a purpose. Families disrupted by one parent’s brash choices can use the convention to be quickly reunited with their children before establishing custody through the courts.

But the brash choices of one parent can also be used to disrupt families.

The law has its limits. The court must first decide where a child is ‘habitually resident’ – a term not enshrined in law that varies case by case, country to country.

Tasked with efficiency, the Hague Convention only aims to establish in which jurisdiction a case should be heard to ensure a child is repatriated quickly and does not lose out on life as the courts settle custody arrangements. This is important, but leaves open areas for exploitation.

It saddens Anita - who is half-Indian - that her children have grown up without knowing half their heritage

It saddens Anita – who is half-Indian – that her children have grown up without knowing half their heritage

Anita said she was ordered not to show any emotion and to stay in the court room until she could control her crying after the ruling

Anita said she was ordered not to show any emotion and to stay in the court room until she could control her crying after the ruling

Carolina Marín Pedreño, Head of the Children Law Department at Dawson Cornwell, told MailOnline that while the Convention helps many, its blind spots continue to draw criticism from aggrieved parents worldwide.

‘One of the main criticisms is that there is no protecting victims of domestic violence. 

‘Sadly, most parents remove their children without going through the legal channels, the application to relocate, because they are escaping from a very horrible situation where there is abuse so it’s like a natural instinct: they want to go back home, they want to go back to their families where they have emotional support.’

She agrees with Anita that the Convention is fundamentally important as the ‘only international treaty that defines what is in the best interests of the child’ and looks to establish where a case should be heard, as ‘the longer the child is away… we are not protecting their interests’.

‘Globalisation has changed our communities a lot,’ she says. ‘But I think it is still a treaty that protects the welfare of the child because people should go through the right channels and apply for permission to relocate’.

One issue, she notes, is the lack of consistency between signatories in their relocation processes. Online forums for parents show the vastly different timescales of starting a move through the legal channels – some suggesting a week, others a couple of months, some up to six.

Vague definitions also create difficulties. ‘Habitual residence is not defined by the treaty, or even in European law. So it’s based on authorities, on jurisprudence.’ 

It is harder to establish the habitual residence of younger children, she says, as they have not yet formed all the institutional connections provided by schooling, and so on. Parents may fly back and forth to visit family with their children.

‘Someday, if that goes on for more than, let’s say, six months and the child has put down roots in England, you could argue they have lost their habitual residence in Greece,’ she suggests as an example.

‘Also,’ says Carolina, ‘if you have removed a child unlawfully, there should not be a label that says… “you have abducted a child so you cannot get permission from the court to relocate lawfully”. That also happens sometimes: mothers go back to a country and then it may be impossible for them to get permission from those courts to move back to England.’

In most cases, she says, parents that remove children without consent or without a court order ‘know that they are committing a crime’. The question follows: what reasons would parents have for doing it? The answers vary.

Last October, the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) held a roundtable to review the legislation and make recommendations about its use. They observed an issue with delays and urged a learning from the lockdowns that technology could help move proceedings along.

The Special Commission maintained that the child’s State of habitual residence is usually ‘best placed’ to make decisions about the best interests of the child in resuming the ‘status quo’ before the child’s removal, but noted various exceptions.

Among these, it urged contracting parties to help disseminate information about protections available to ensure the safe return of the child. It also ‘welcomed’ the publication of a ‘guide to good practice‘, laying out an exception for indirect harm to the child.

The Special Commission then suggested value in a forum for discussions among organisations representing parents and children on the issue of domestic violence to help inform future work.

Anita has since gone on to found a charity helping parents affected by Hague rulings

Anita has since gone on to found a charity helping parents affected by Hague rulings

Anita is half-Indian and regrets that her children have grown up without knowing their heritage

Anita is half-Indian and regrets that her children have grown up without knowing their heritage

Anita had not heard of the Hague Convention when her partner brought a claim against her to return their children. Today, there is no escaping it.

The treaty, etched out more than forty years ago for a different world, exists to help parents aggrieved by the horrors of child abduction, ensuring to the best of the ability of the courts that young people do not miss out on life close to home.

Anita’s story reveals the lasting consequences such an early ruling can have, where families are broken up by a perceived miscarriage of justice, the neglect of exceptional factors and the decisions of a handful of people.

Since then, she has dedicated her life to challenging the law and encouraging others to understand the risks to parenthood in a global world. Anita feels unable to change the ruling that has shaped her life. But she does what she can to fulfil her duty to the truth and to parenthood.

‘I had a voice call with him on his 18th birthday,’ she says of her son now. ‘Which is the first time in many years we’ve spoken on his birthday. He was driving, but he answered the call. We spoke for a few minutes.

‘I have to be grateful for funny little crumbs of their lives, I guess.’



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