Last week a visitor to the blog read my post about Payne v Payne (Leave to remove a child: what about the parents left behind?) and contacted me with her story. This reader married an overseas national and moved to another country. After her marriage broke down, the court in that country refused her permission to relocate with her children. Describing herself as a “stuck mum”, she is keen to make contact with parents who are in similar circumstances. With her permission, I am sharing her story here.
On the blog this week, we are going to look at the fraught subject of relocation in more detail. We will be examining external relocation (leave to remove from England and Wales) and internal relocation (within England and Wales). When one parent wishes to move away with the children, there are no easy answers. In different countries, different rules and priorities apply. Compare this reader’s experience with that of a father in a case recently heard by the Court of Appeal. It is often impossible to reach a solution that satisfies all parties.
“I’m a stuck mum”
I am, I believe, one of a great number of women who have been trapped by family court decisions. My relationship with an overseas national fell apart, and now I live in a remote area of the world (let’s call it “Faraway Land”) where I have no family or support system.
I have two children from a previous marriage, who have always lived with me. I met a new partner, a native of Faraway Land, and we had a baby. My partner informed me that in his home country, life was safer, healthier and more family-friendly. He also persuaded me that if we moved there, it would be to our financial advantage.
In retrospect, the relationship already had a few cracks in it. I also believe that he may have wanted to improve his prospects of winning custody of his own child, a toddler at the time, by being able to draw upon his own legal and financial system, which he knew well.
We moved to Faraway Land, to a rural area, and for a couple of years we shuttled the older two children back and forth between their biological father and their new stepfamily. However we soon ran into debt as it was simply not an affordable scheme. The cost of living was much higher than at home. My older children and I found it difficult to settle in, and my relationship with my partner deteriorated. It was a clear flop. We just wanted to go home.
My partner dug his heels in. He refused to take any actions to sell up and return, then informed me that Faraway Land had jurisdiction because our child had lived there nominally longer than in the child’s country of birth. He demanded that the arrangement continue as it was. I tried to find local accommodation, but ended up in a women’s refuge, having left him the house and car so that he could find a job.
I consulted a few lawyers, one of whom told me that despite the circumstances, I had a four per cent chance of being permitted to relocate. This was due to my older children being of an age to make a decision, and the youngest too young to do so. In this country, the parent who wishes to relocate is first asked by the judge and also the court psychologist whether he/she will stay with the child if denied relocation, even when the reasons for wanting to return are good. An answer of “no” is often taken to be proof of a lack of care for the child, resulting in the child being handed over to the non-relocating parent.
The lawyer who took my case was not the one I should have picked, as he never had much time and he was not clear in his communication with me, but he was recommended by someone I liked and trusted and all the other lawyers in town were busy.
I was panicking at this point. None of us wanted to live here, but seemingly we would be forced to do so anyway. The ladies at the women’s refuge told me to “do a runner”, so that I would at least have a few years left to enjoy my children’s youth before I was dragged back to Faraway Land by the Hague [Convention]. I thought this would be illegal and decided to play with a straight bat, as my lawyer recommended. I encouraged my child’s relationship with his father and tried to keep things as civil as possible despite our pain and panic. Ultimately my good behaviour didn’t matter in court, but I know women who did do runners and who were pulled back to Faraway Land by the Hague [Convention].
It took almost three years just to obtain a decision, such was the bureaucracy. My child’s father’s lawyer regurgitated all manner of concocted and irrelevant assertions, in an effort to cast aspersions on my parenting. No evidence of anything was offered. Only accusations and mud. All my evidence remained in stacks and files in my lawyer’s office, never introduced either in affidavits or in court.
The half-siblings did not matter to the court. I was blamed for the financial problems, for being “disorganised in my finances”. This, despite the fact that I had managed my own business at home for 30 years without a hitch. Their dislike of living here and their stepfather’s treatment of them were dismissed as no longer relevant. So while the mother (myself) and other children did not want to stay in Faraway Land, the father played his home advantage. I was denied leave to remove my youngest child. I found I could not convey the tragedy and causality of our situation in court. I was of the impression that they wanted to rush the case through because of their backlog and the amount of time it had already dragged on.
My child’s father made a big deal out of my son’s grandparents being very available to him, one of the benefits of our child staying in Faraway Land. Yet he barely saw them at all, and rarely mentions them. They have since moved out of the area.
The proceeding felt like an anti-relocation farce to me. This didn’t seem to be about “families” at all – it was a simple belief that all one child needs in order to be happy is the isolation of two parents in a status quo situation. It is a very simplistic formula, being applied to one complex case after another, just to move them through an inefficient court system.
My child’s father won shared parenting, and we don’t know when we will be able to go home. Ever? Soon? Next year? When my youngest child turns 16 and the others are all grown up? This process itself is abusive of families. We can’t make any longer-term decisions about any of our lives while pinned down to a place where no one actually wants to be, and the provisional misery being generated cannot be good for this child. The courts are pinning us down like butterflies on corkboards and saying, “this is how we will create stability for this child”.
I have struggled with the debt left by the marriage, the loneliness and the high cost of living. The recession is awful here, and citizens of Faraway Land have been fleeing to healthier economies. We don’t even have the freedom they have to do this! One of my older children lives with his biological father in our home country, and homesickness is the overweening flavour of our household. This is not good for anyone, including my youngest child who is the object of the case.
I have held it together, working like a maniac to stay afloat. I co-parent, am pulling myself out of debt, studying, caring for my children. But genuine emotional cracks started to develop after the court permitted us to return home for a visit. This visit was made after years of being prevented from leaving Faraway Land. Home was everything I remembered it to be. Family, friends, natural beauty, emotional warmth, comfort, ease, stimulating activities, inexpensive living… It was glorious. My youngest child loved it there as well, and he has uncles, an older brother, similarly-aged cousins to play with and no lack of male role models and relatives, unlike here. We could own our own home and not be bumped from rental to rental.
It was terrible returning to Faraway Land after this visit. Now I am living day to day, unwilling to jeopardise my professional work by going on anti-depressants. I was told by local doctors that anti-depressants are a “solution” to which many unhappy expats resort, whether they are stuck due to children or some other reason.
I have spoken to so many other women in the same situation. In one case the mother had to “import” her own mother from the UK on a humanitarian visa just to have family nearby, she was in so many bits due to the decision.
My youngest child deserves to experience the culture he was born into, for at least part of his childhood, so he can make an informed decision as a teen about which society he prefers to live in as an adult. His remaining sibling and mother both want to be home. It is all the harder for me to have two other children affected by this case as the years drag and drag. It is not about just the youngest. It is harming my mother, my other kids, other people back home who want to be a part of our life, to help and be helped by us – and cannot because we can’t make any long-term plans!
I perceive that the vision of families in the courts these days is not an organic one, and the judges are not weighing enough factors in making their decisions. They are focusing on the child-made-happy-with-status-quo-and-two-parents formula and decreeing unnatural, stressful situations to try and bring a dead fairytale to life for that child, whose world has already irrevocably changed with the splitting-up of his parents.