News

29 November 2018

Australian Federal Police uncover child stealing ring in Australia

Child abduction has recently been in the spotlight after the Australian Federal Police made a number of arrests in relation to the involvement by individuals in a child stealing ring that has been operating in Australia.

The individuals involved have been charged with criminal offences of conspiracy to defeat justice and child stealing, for their assistance in continually moving mothers and their children within Australia to avoid detection by authorities and prevent the return of the children to their extended family, in breach of court orders.

A recent decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia where a mother who went on the run in Australia with her children was imprisoned, as was the grandmother who assisted, shows that the courts are also cracking down on parental child abduction.

The Federal Government have recently amended the Family Law Act in relation to international parental abduction.

In light of the recent media attention, court decisions and upcoming legislative changes, it is timely to reflect upon how the law restricts travel with children after separation.

So what is child abduction? 

Child abduction occurs, broadly speaking, when one parent travels or relocates with their child:

  1. domestically in breach of court orders, or outside of their time with the child; or
  2. internationally in breach of court orders, or without the prior written consent of the other parent.

There are a variety of potentially serious consequences for making a mistake when travelling with your child after separation, including:

  1. If orders have been breached, the non-breaching parent may commence contravention proceedings seeking that the child be returned to them and then also seek an amendment to the orders in relation to the care arrangements for your child. The party in breach may also be found to be in contempt of court.  The court has a variety of powers to punish a person found in contempt, including order the payment of a fine or imprisonment.
  2. If there are no orders in place, court proceedings may be commenced for the return of the child and also seeking orders about the care arrangements for the child in favour of the non‑abducting parent.
  3. The Family Law Act makes it a criminal offence to travel with a child overseas in breach of a court order, or while there are current proceedings in relation to the child before the court or an appeal. If found guilty, a person faces up to three years imprisonment.  The new amendments to the Family Law Act that will come into effect from a date proclaimed or 26 April 2019 will also make it a criminal offence where a parent travels overseas with a child with the consent of the other parent, but fails to return the child to Australia as agreed or in accordance with orders.  These amendments also introduce a defence, where a parent abducts a child because they believe it to be necessary to escape family or domestic violence.
  4. There are also different state based criminal offences for ‘stealing’ and ‘abducting’ a child which not only the abducting parent faces, but also any other person who knowingly assists that parent.

The key lesson to be learnt is that the law on travelling with children after separation is complex and there are very serious consequences for getting it wrong.  You should obtain legal advice from an experienced family lawyer about your situation.  As a golden rule, written consent (by statutory declaration) from the other parent should be sought, unless there is a court order which allows the travel.

To understand what you should do if your child is not returned to you, ways in which you can prevent your child from being abducted and what to do if the other parent will not consent to travel, we have provided further information below.

What should you do if your child is not returned?

If your child is not returned to you, you should seek immediate legal advice about filing an urgent application in the court for the recovery of your child.

A recovery order permits the Australian Federal Police to recover your child and return them to you.

If the location of your child is not known, then there are other orders such as a location order, a Commonwealth information order and a publication order which can assist with locating your child.

If your child has been relocated outside of Australia, then you should contact a lawyer immediately.  Australia is a party to an agreement called the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the Hague Convention), which permits the Attorney-General’s department to commence proceedings on your behalf in other countries who are also a party to the agreement to seek an order for the recovery of your child.  Such applications can be time sensitive.

Ways you can prevent your child from being abducted

If your child does not have a passport, then it is a requirement for the issue of an Australian passport that any person with parental responsibility consent to the issue of the passport.  However, an additional measure that can be taken is to lodge an alert with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade if you consider there is a risk that your child may be issued with a passport without your consent.

If your child does have a passport and the passport is not secure, or you are concerned that a passport may be issued by another country, an urgent application can be made to the court to secure the passport and also to place the child on the Family Law Watch List which will authorise the Australian Federal Police to prevent your child from being removed from Australia via air or sea at all departure points.

What if the other parent does not consent to international travel?

You cannot travel internationally with your child without the other parent’s written consent.  If the other parent does not consent to your child travelling with you, then you can make an application to the court seeking an order that your child be permitted to travel with you.

For more information about this issue and all other family law matters please contact our family law solicitor Rochelle Ryan on 07 4036 9700.

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