A child for the taking
Who gets the kids? Sometimes, whoever kidnaps them
Terry Giles answered a knock at the door of his Toronto apartment. His sister-in-law swooped in, scooped up his younger daughter, Shona, and ran out. His estranged wife grabbed his daughter Michelle; Giles grabbed her back. There was a tug of war. His shirt was ripped to shreds. His wife let go and dashed down the hall. Giles charged to the balcony just in time to see her car peeling away from the curb. Shona was screaming “I want my daddy” at the top of her lungs. He called the police. Family fight, they said, nothing we can do. He went to court for interim custody of the children, but by the time he got it his wife and Shona had disappeared. The police refused to trace them, private investigators couldn’t find them. Giles hasn’t seen Shona since she was snatched last September. Money is tight (the legal and investigative fees totaled $2,000); he’s hiding out in a new home; he has an unlisted phone. He’s afraid his wife will try for Michelle again.
Ken Burke, until recently a solicitor in the legal department of External Affairs in Ottawa, has worked on dozens of international child abduction cases. He tells a nasty story. An Ottawa man (Burke won’t release his name) divorced his wife and was awarded custody of his eight-year-old son by the Ontario Supreme Court. But his ex-wife, a German citizen, grabbed the boy and flew home to Germany. He followed her and fought through three levels of the West Berlin courts to have his Ontario order enforced. The highest court said a new custody trial must be held in Germany. He fought for custody through the three courts again, and won. Then his ex-wife took off with his son. A warrant was issued for her arrest but the West Berlin police say they haven’t the manpower to track her down. “He’s a beaten man,” says Burke.
Lois Preston lives in Surrey, BC. Her husband left her in 1973 and 10 days later he snatched her youngest son, Steven, out of the yard. She searched for him for three years with almost no help from the police and no luck. Finally, in March, 1976, her husband was picked up by police. He refused to reveal Steven’s whereabouts to a Family Court judge. He wasjailed. A week later he gave in and Steven was returned to Lois. But her husband was granted visiting rights and two months later he picked Steven up at school and vanished. He sent Lois a letter saying, in effect, “Nyah, nyah, you’ll never catch me now.” There is a criminal warrant out for his arrest but Preston is convinced the police aren't doing much about it. “One police sergeant
told me, ‘We do much faster work on a real kidnapping.’ ”
Families once were the solid foundation upon which nations were built, civilizations erected. They spring up now more like weeds with shallow roots: the divorce rate has soared 300% since 1968 and one marriage in three dissolves in turmoil.
We have not yet grown blasé about the death of families. Marriages don’t split apart neatly. Instead, once-loving men and women scrabble fiercely for the family linen, sticks of furniture and, in more than half of all divorces, their children. Sometimes they do battle legally, slinging mud and calling names in divorce courts, provincial family courts. Sometimes a parent just picks up the kids and runs.
Children’s rights organizations in the United States estimate that between 60,000 and 100,000 American children are stolen by one parent from another every year. An organization called the Association of Parents of Kidnapped Children estimates that anywhere up to 10,000 kids are stolen yearly in Canada and spirited away to other provinces, other countries around the world. Estimates are all these groups have—no one keeps statistics on child theft.
These abductions are technically illegal. Section 250 of the Criminal Code prohibits a parent from kidnapping his children. The first part of the section states that anyone who deprives a lawful parent of a child under the age of 14 could go to prison for up to 10 years. But there is a loophole. Subsection two says this doesn’t apply to anyone claiming rights to the child in good faith. That’s the catch; unless a court has already ruled on custody, parents have equal rights to a child. A parent who snatches a child prior to a custody order, or has lost custody by failing to appear in court, can always argue he believed he had a right to the child. And 70% of all child snatches do occur before a court order. The abduction charge is therefore rare and convictions are almost nonexistent.
Even when there are clear grounds for criminal action, the police and Crown prosecutors gear for it only under the most intense pressures. Professionals in the criminal courts view child-stealing as little more than a poisonous family fight, a civil matter best dealt with by the civil courts. But the civil courts have grave difficulty enforcing custody orders. Custody battles are waged primarily under provincial legislation in this country and a custody order extends only to provincial borders. In some provinces it is possible for a parent to snatch a child, run to another province, appeal to the courts for custody, and get it. Since physical possession of the child helps establish the grounds for a favorable decision, the other parent sometimes has difficulty proving the child should be returned. This happens often enough that there is a name for it: forum shopping.
In 1975, Lois Preston started Parents of Kidnapped Children (it now has 100 mem-
The abduction industry: some guys will do anything to make a buck
There’s always somebody who’ll do a dirty job if the price is right.
Donald Uffinger owns a private investigation agency in Fairfax, Virginia. In the past five years he’s carried out 200 child snatches and refused 500 others. Claiming to be the biggest operator in the United States (he’s also done jobs in Canada) Uffinger is a one-man judge, jury and police force. “I’ll take a case whether there’s a custody order or not,” he says, “if I think the client should have the kid.”
For a minimum fee of $2,500 (which sometimes shoots as high as $15,000) he locates the missing child, sets up a surveillance to establish “a pattern of movement," and then zooms in to grab and run. Fast cars, private planes, and speedboats are used to spirit the client out of the state. His men never touch the child (that would make it a real kidnapping), they just make it possible for the client to get in and out in one piece. Uffinger has a few rules. “It’s a very emotional situation and my clients agree to take strict orders from me. I always search them for weapons.”
Eugene Austin of Foley, Missouri, looks like a southern cracker with his green work duds, grey brushcut and slab cheeks creased like old boots. “They call me Mean Gene,” he laughs. He operates out of phone booths, bus stations and “safe houses” all across the United States and rarely goes home. His fee is $300 plus expenses “and the right to publicize.” He’s not in this for the money. “This is vigilantism ... I tried to get government interested for seven years writing letters and all of that, and nothing. So I got a big stick and whacked ’em on the nose and by God now they’re really paying attention.”
Mean Gene calls snatches “retrievals” and does one or two a month. That adds up to a lot of kids because he’s been at it since 1963. He draws a line between parents who do the first snatch and the parents who wanttheirchildren back. “I work for the parent with the first legal custody order. The second one is about as useful as a piece of toilet paper. About 80% to 90% of the cases involve abuse or neglect. The kinds of people who make the
first snatch are convicted criminals, religious cultists, nuts and mental defectives.”
Austin thinks of himself as the protector of children held prisoner by religious cults and screwy parents, or awarded to unworthy women by biased courts. He is also saving them from the dangers of the "self-help” snatch. He points out that a man and his son were killed in Oklahoma
that way last year. “The injury rate on selfhelps is a third higher than if you do it with me. The most common injury is that the parents grab the kid’s arms and yank back and forth and the kid’s arms get pulled out of their sockets. The second one is that the parent picks up the kid, tries to run, and trips or something. The kids get broken bones that way. The third one happens when you shove the kid in the car too fast and they get cut on something sharp. Not one kid has been injured with me. If it looks too tough, I’ll abort it.” But it’s still a dangerous business. “I’ve gone through roadblocks with the police
chasing me. I just came home through a nationwide APB [all points bulletin]. There’s still a charge out for me for kidnapping in North Carolina. I’ve had three attempts on my life in three years, but they're not going to get me.” Austin has six active cases in Canada: two in British Columbia and the others in Edmonton, Calgary, Thunder Bay and Brantford.
Canadian private investigators are a little more retiring. They don’t like to admit they do child snatches but if you ask the right questions (“Do you locate?” “Yes.” “Do you set up a surveillance looking for a pattern of movement?” “Yes.” “Do you take your client to the location, wait while they grab the child, and then help them get away?”) the answer is often yes.
Alfons Altmann of Advocate Investigation Services in Toronto figures that his firm has handled 20 to 25 tough cases in the past five years. The average fee is about $4,000 but it can run as high as $12,000. Altmann is disgusted by the clients. “In most circumstances, both parents are lunatics. They feel so sorry for themselves, they would use any means to destroy the other person. Someone should be representing the child’s rights against the parents.”
Kurt Wruck, a 34-year-old investigator for Toronto's Aston Associates, flashes his diamond pinky ring while he talks about a case he just finished. An English client came to Toronto and asked for help snatching her child. She had custody in England so he agreed to do it. He checked the legal niceties with the Peel Regional Police, followed their advice to the letter and put the woman back on the plane with her son. But he didn’t like the operation at all. “The kid was screaming, kicking, calling us burglars. He was only six years old and he didn’t recognize her. We get him in the car and we’re driving like hell to the airport and he says, ‘Please Mister, turn around; she’s not my mommy, she’s not my mommy.’ ”
Wruck doesn’t like child snatchers either. “My impression is that they’re jilted egomaniacs. I feel they’re doing it out of spite. I’m sure these guys don’t do it for the kid.”
bers) to pressure the federal government into amending the Criminal Code on child abduction. Last year her MP, Conservative Benno Friesen, brought a private member’s bill before the House of Commons to make parental kidnapping a criminal offense punishable by life imprisonment. The substance of the bill was shipped off to the health and welfare committee this March. It’s still sitting there.
“It’s fine to read the law books, but what’s written and what’s enforced are two different matters,” snaps Preston. “You have to find the kid before you can act.”
Gloria Mackechnie, 26. has a glistening, even tan. Her hair is thick and sumptuous. It pours across her shoulders in rippling cascades. Her eyes are glowing brown, the same color as her hair, her thick black lashes brush her cheeks and shimmer in the light. She sits with her back pressed into a vinyl banquette in a downtown Toronto tavern and for a moment her cool is impeccable. Then her tiny, delicate fingers bumble into a water glass and fumble with an ashtray. She launches into a tale of how she spent $15,000 and two years of her life tracking down her son. “I’m a
nervous wreck,” she wails.
She met and married Hugh Mackechnie, a Canadian printer, in Los Angeles in 1970, just after she left high school. She moved to Toronto with him, and her son Phillip was born there in 1971. But by 1973 the marriage was over. In November of 1974 she was back in L.A. with Phillip. She had a separation agreement giving her custody. A month later, Hugh came down to see her and things were friendly. Then, in March, 1975, she applied for a divorce.
The day after Hugh was served with his notice, he appeared at her door and asked
to take Phillip to Disneyland. Something set Gloria’s teeth on edge: she asked to trade cars with him for the day thinking, if she had his, he’d bring Phillip back. They were to take both cars to her father’s restaurant and switch. Phillip got into his Dad’s Volkswagen and Gloria followed them down the street. “We came to a stop light and he made a turn and took off into traffic. 1 just knew what he’d done.” Phillip and Hugh were gone.
She went to the police. When she hauled out her separation agreement they laughed. They told her to go back to Toronto or wherever she thought he might be and look for him—they couldn’t do anything for her.
She stayed in California long enough to go through the divorce hearing. She was granted custody. Papers in hand, she and her sister, Henrietta Morales, drove back to Toronto. She hired a lawyer, applied for custody and tried to get an abduction warrant for Hugh. “I couldn’t get one because of the jurisdictions,” she sighs. “The kidnapping happened in California.”
Without a warrant, the police couldn’t help her so she hired Toronto investigator Pearl Stone (“the doyen of skip tracers, a woman of a thousand lies,” laughs one Toronto lawyer) to find Hugh. Stone dug up the addresses of all his relatives in Ontario and even went to some of their homes (violating her policy of working only by phone) to check them out. (“I’ve got heart,” says Stone.) Over the next two years, Gloria says, she paid Stone at least $1,000.
She decided she needed a leg man. She hired Ken Maslen of Aston Associates to set up surveillances on relatives in Toronto and other Ontario communities. The relatives all told Gloria they didn’t know where Hugh was. One day, his orange Volkswagen (“I practically drove off the road whenever I saw one like it”) was spotted in front of his mother’s house in Toronto. Maslen, an employee and Gloria went back the next morning and followed Hugh to Oakville. Phillip was in the car. They lost him.
Gloria figured she could do as well herself, so she would shove her long hair under a hat, put on dark glasses, cruise down the highway in a new car (bought so Hugh wouldn’t spot her) and lurk around the relatives’ homes sniffing for clues. When she ran out of money, she took temporary jobs typesetting. It was depressing and it was driving her crazy. “The whole time I’d be thinking, what if he shows, do I have to jump on top of him to get Phillip free? The police told me they wouldn’t have anything to do with having Phillip turned over to me. That made me wonder why I bothered to get the orders.”
She had writs of attachment for four different regions in Ontario, supposedly the next best thing to a warrant. “What a joke,” she sneers. “I went to the sheriff and he said ‘There’s no provision to hold your husband in jail.’ And there was nothing in them about Phillip. Well, we had to go to court for each writ. I think the lawyer’s bill
was about $6,000.”
She dumped Maslen in January, 1976. He was too costly (she says she paid him $2,500; he says he only squeezed $2,018 out of Legal Aid) and he couldn’t find Hugh. Shortly after that, one of Maslen’s former employees, a man named Michael Heaney, called her. He said that for a $650 retainer, he could solve the case. She gave it to him. He then told her that he’d spotted Hugh in Beaverton, Ontario, about 60 miles from Toronto, but that Phillip wasn’t with him. “And then I really got worried, because he said, ‘You know, your husband’s really strange, he walks around in dark glasses and he acts really freaky.’ Being a mother, I got really upset, you know? Where’s Phillip, has he sold him, who knows, right?”
But she was learning to be shrewd. She demanded pictures of Hugh in Beaverton. Heaney said they were at the lab. She demanded to go to Beaverton with him a week later. No, no, he said, she’d spoil his hard work; any minute now Hugh would lead him to Phillip; he’d take her the next weekend. Friday night came and he didn’t call. Saturday morning she called him. His phone had been disconnected. “He’d moved out of his house in the middle of the night and that was the end of Michael Heaney.”
Gloria throws back her head and laughs. She’s just remembered the next fiasco. In April of 1976, she was out playing sleuth again with her boyfriend. They drove to Burlington, just west of Toronto, to snoop around an apartment belonging to Hugh’s sister-in-law. It was a large building at the bottom of a dead-end street. As she approached it, Gloria saw the orange Volkswagen leaving the building, coming
toward her. Hugh and Phillip were in the car. She slammed on her brakes. Hugh spotted her on the way by and squealed into a U-turn, heading back toward the building. At the same time, Gloria moved to cut off his escape out the open end of the block. “He had this big, stupid grin on his face and he took off again.” His front fender caught her rear fender. Gloria tried to keep up with him by throwing her car into reverse, but she was too late. He poured on the gas, ripped the fender off her car, and roared down the road to the apartment building. Gloria thought he would drive around it and come back on the street, so she sat there and waited. But he didn’t reappear. Gloria says he drove behind the building, went straight through a wire mesh fence, across an open field, down a gully, then up onto a baseball field. He grabbed Phillip and ran with him on foot.
The Halton Regional Police came to the scene. “And you know what my big mistake was?” she laughs. “I said I had an accident with my husband. If I’d said I had an accident with a Volkswagen, they would have chased him and arrested him, because they saw him running away.” She harassed the police until they laid a failure to remain charge. Hugh’s car was impounded. The police told her that only Hugh could claim it and they'd hold him for her when he came for it.
She took pleasure in driving out to the police pound to gloat over the Volkswagen, bait for her trap. One weekend, when she went to check, the car was gone. Hugh had transferred ownership to his mother and she had collected it. She still denied knowing where Hugh was. “That was the biggest dead end,” sighs Gloria.
“After that there was absolutely no trace of him till this February.”
By June of last year, Gloria’s sister Henrietta, who’d been working full time to help Gloria financially, was getting such fierce headaches that she had to quit her job. She went home to Los Angeles leaving Gloria to sulk alone. Gloria grew so desperate she even stole her mother-in-law’s garbage bags, scrabbling through the muck looking for letters with postmarks, phone bills, anything. She got nowhere.
Henrietta came back to Toronto in December, determined to give it one last shot. This time she was going to use publicity, get Gloria on talk shows, plaster posters of Hugh and Phillip everywhere. She and Gloria had heard about Lois Preston’s organization and got permission to start a Toronto chapter. Henrietta phoned newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and rattled off a long speech. She said she represented Parents of Kidnapped Children, that her sister had been searching for her son for more than a year with no help from the police, that her group supported Benno Friesen’s bill to make child-stealing punishable by life imprisonment.
Henrietta also found out that Hugh was receiving a family allowance check for Phillip. Gloria stormed off to see an official from the Department of Health and Welfare, begged for Hugh’s address and flashed her writs and custody orders. “They wouldn’t even look at them,” she says bitterly.
In February, Gloria was invited to appear with Friesen on a Toronto television talk show, the CITY Show hosted by Morton Shulman. She decided to try for a warrant again so she could explain that end of the problem to Shulman. She talked to a Justice of the Peace, who said no. She talked to a Crown Prosecutor (“a bachelor, what did he know?”) who said no. Then she went to see Stephen Leggett, deputy Crown attorney for York County. He said a warrant for abduction was impossible but he thought a warrant for harboring was reasonable. He authorized it.
Then a social worker called after reading a story about Gloria in The Toronto Sun. She told her that a year before, a man had come to her office in the welfare department and had given his name as Butch Mathieson. There was a small boy with him who said his name was Phillip Mackechnie.
Gloria raced to the police with her warrant and her husband’s alias. She also dashed to Pearl Stone with the new information. And nothing happened. “Two months they had to find him,” she sneers, “and they couldn’t.”
When Brian Terry, a private investigator, called in April and asked to address her group on the merits of private agencies, she told him she was up to here with the whole breed. As a display of good faith, Terry asked for the details of her case and promised to help her without a fee. Gloria told him everything. The next day, he
called her back and said the magic words: “I know where your husband is. He’s in Kingston.”
The Toronto police called the Kingston police. They also phoned the printing shop where Terry said Hugh was working. Five minutes after they called, Hugh was out the door saying he had to take his son to the dentist.
Gloria and Henrietta arrived in Kingston that evening. There was no sign of Hugh at his apartment. The police told them to keep out of it, that they would find him, but she and Henrietta hung around all weekend, peering in apartment windows, skulking in doorways, waiting for
him to show. He didn’t. On Monday morning, April 4, he didn’t go to work. They got back in their car and drove home.
At ten o’clock in the evening, the Kingston police called. They had arrested Hugh at his apartment. He and his mother had been loading all his things into a U-Haul trailer. The detective in charge had taken Phillip home; would they please come and get him?
All the way back to Kingston, Gloria worried about Phillip’s reaction. Would he scream and cry? Would he demand to see his father? She waited for him to wake up in the morning, then went in to see him, their first meeting in more than two years.
“He looked so different,” she sighs, “he was so big. And I said, ‘Hi Phillip, do you remember me?’ And he said no. I said ‘Well, I’m your mommy.’ If he’d seen me on the street, he’d have walked right by.”
Hugh was held in jail for three days, then released on $2,000 bail. In the first week of June, Gloria was told he had bought a 30:30 rifle in Kingston, shortly after the police contacted his employer. She says he is not a hunter. The same week, she received a phone call from Pearl Stone. Stone said Hugh had offered her $2,000 for Gloria’s address. Stone advised her to pack up Phillip and get him out of town. “He’s gonna snatch that boy again, honey, and this time you’ll never find him.”
Gloria slumps down in the banquette and stares into space. She complains that she has to watch Phillip all the time, that she can’t let him out of the yard, that she’s worried about how that will affect him. But something about the description of life with her son doesn’t ring quite true: it’s as if he’s a fantasy child, a wraith. She makes noises about a baby-sitter and goes home.
A week later she sits on a bench in the public section of Provincial Courtroom 22. Her eyes are dark stones. Two pink-faced, blond-haired men flank her. They look as if they’re posing for a sombre family portrait, but the man on her right is her current boyfriend and the man on her left is her exhusband Hugh. They wait as a hawkfaced
man is prodded through a 20-minute trial. He tried to slice up a lady with a hunt ing knife. He draws a suspended sentence.
A police detective in a loose, checked suit sidles up to Gloria and whispers in her ear. As he turns to leave, she nudges her boyfriend in the ribs. “Did you hear that?” she hisses. “He said he had more important cases this morning and he might not get back in time. Do you believe it? Some twobit robbery is more important than this.” An hour later, Hugh is called before the judge. It is revealed that he has admitted himself to the psychiatric ward of an Oakville hospital. (His mother explained afterward that he’d “reached the point where there was nothing left to live for.”) Even though he can come and go as he pleases, the judge wants a letter from his psychiatrist that he is well enough to stand trial. The case is remanded for a week, the second time that’s happened. It’s one more stumbling block on the road out of nightmare. Gloria stomps from the courtroom.
A few days later I ask to meet Phillip. “He’s not here right now.” There’s a brittle snap to her voice.
“Where is he?”
“Just far away. I only had him for two months and he’s been gone ever since. I just can’t take it anymore. I’m going to have to go and get him. I’m trying to do
what’s best for Phillip but it’s tearing me apart.”
This is life imitating The Edge Of Night. Gloria Mackechnie, head of the Toronto chapter of Parents of Kidnapped Children, has turned child-snatcher herself.
Gloria has hidden Phillip in a small town in the American West, where the sun burns down and bakes the clear air into an invisible hot wall. It is July, the height of the tourist season. Gawking families in mobile homes roll down the freeways, hunting for memorabilia of the Old West. Gloria is hunting for the right course.
She has stashed Phillip with her sister Henrietta who at 27 looks more like a cheerleader for a Mexican high school than the security guard for an abducted child. There is a corral next door to Henrietta’s rented trailer. For Phillip, a sun-gilded, wiry, six-year-old with questing eyes, it’s like living next door to heaven. For Gloria, the scene is grim.
This should have been a sweet reunion but Phillip seems confused. He treats Henrietta as his mother, Gloria as an aunt and he can’t keep their names straight. “It’s Mommy, Phillip, not Henrietta,” shrills Gloria, again and again. She has to reestablish herself as Phillip’s mother now, or the two-year search will have been for nothing. She also has to be back in Toronto for the court case, but she thinks Toronto is dangerous for Phillip. She can’t leave him
here, she can’t take him home. She wanders around in a four-tranquilizer-a-day daze asking the same question. “What do I do?”
She’s scared to run. “I don’t like the idea of living like Hugh did, like a fugitive. If Phillip came home late from school, I’d be thinking Hugh got a tracer and he’s found us and gone.” She twirls the problem over and over in her mind, peering at its angles, measuring the risks, but it all comes to the same thing. No matter where she goes, she’ll always be afraid that Hugh will find her. “What I’d really like to do is live a normal life and I never will,” she moans. “I hate to say this, I know how terrible it is, but sometimes I wish Hugh had done himself in.”
What kind of people turn their children into fugitives? “Psychologically insensitive people,” says Dr. Al Solnit, director of Yale University’s Child Study Centre. “Mental defectives and nuts,” says Eugene Austin, vigilante and custody enforcer. “Fathers who feel they can’t get justice in the courts,” says Dick Scarisbrick, vicepresident of the Society of Single Fathers. “People who want to make real what the divorce has only put on paper,” says Toronto family lawyer Douglas Stewart.
Alan, a 37-year-old engineer, says he did it to protect his children. He is sitting in the half-finished basement of his suburban
Montreal home, surrounded by piles of his children’s laundry, and he’s holding his head in his hands. He has a pounding headache from recounting, in graphic detail, how he snatched his three kids from under his wife’s nose last summer.
He and Brenda were married in England in 1963 and emigrated to Canada in 1966. They had three beautiful children, a boy and two girls. The last few years of their relationship were rocky. When Alan met another woman in the spring of 1975, he made it clear the marriage was over. He offered her half of their assets and half of his net income in alimony and child support. He wanted her to have custody but he thought they should live in the same neigh-
borhood so the children could see him whenever they wanted. He was worried that they might feel he’d deserted them.
Brenda wanted two things. She wanted Alan cut out of her life the way you excise a wart, and she wanted to build a new world for her children. When she applied for a divorce on the grounds of adultery and mental cruelty in September, 1975, Alan felt she’d declared war. She got interim custody. Alan was miserable over his visiting rights. Instead of flexibility, he got every Saturday and every alternate weekend with the kids. He pleaded with Brenda to give him two nights during the week; she wouldn’t hear of it. He took matters into his own hands.
He phoned the children daily; he picked them up at school and took them out for lunch; he joined his son’s Beavers group. He thought he was being resourceful, Brenda thought he was “harassing” her and “disrupting the children’s lives.” She began to hold them back on Saturdays, making last-minute excuses. She threatened to pull her son out of the Beavers group. She ordered the school to stop letting Alan take the children for lunch. She took the phone off the hook as soon as they came home from school and then got an unlisted number.
Christmas time. Brenda wanted to take the kids to England but Alan objected. What about his visiting rights? She told him to exercise them in England. When he
found he would be there for a few days on a business trip, he agreed to let them go. Brenda had looked forward to the trip as a break from an intolerable situation. When Alan told her he was going, she was enraged (“Wherever I went, whatever I did, there he was”). After he returned to Canada, she extended her vacation from three weeks to five and sent him a curt telegram saying one of the kids was sick, she’d be home in a few weeks. It was Alan’s turn to be furious.
And suspicious. “I knew, I just knew she was going to leave, cut me off from the children. It was driving me wild.” Mutual friends confirmed his fears. They told him that Brenda, now back in Montreal, was making plans to return to school in England. He asked her about it and she didn’t deny it. He became frantic. He tried to get his children named on his passport but Brenda delayed giving him the necessary letter. After Alan staged a sit-in in her kitchen and had to be forced out by four burly policemen, Brenda’s lawyer wrote him a letter ordering him to stop his “harassing tactics” or risk not seeing the children at all.
“So here I was,” sighs Alan, “having my weekend rights interfered with and knowing in my guts that she was going to take off with them.” He asked lawyers what he could do to stop her. The answer: there were no legal means. If she went to England with the kids and he stopped paying child support, she could even garnishee his wages. “So, being a man of action,” Alan grins, “I made a decision.”
Easter was the perfect time for the Great Escape. Brenda had already agreed that he could take the children to Florida for a week. (“If it was going to be one parent or the other, it was going to be me.”) He rented out his house and stored all his furniture. He knew he was throwing his career in the garbage but he didn’t care anymore.
He cleaned out his pension fund, slipped across the border and bought a station wagon and camper trailer with U.S. plates. That left him with $8,000 in cash. He didn’t want traveler’s cheques or a bank account (they can be traced) so he pinned all his money in his clothes. He picked up the children on the day the holiday was to begin. He told them they had more time than planned. The kids, he says, were delighted.
In her apartment in downtown Montreal, Brenda picks up the story. When Alan didn’t return at the end of the week, she panicked. Then along came a telegram saying one of the children was sick, return delayed. It was worded “exactly the same way as the one I’d sent Alan from England. I knew he wasn’t coming back.” She went to the police, who told her to sit tight. At the end of the next week, a letter arrived from Alan, saying he wasn’t coming back because of the intolerable situation between them. The police pooh-hoohed the letter. Finally, a sergeant in the local station told her to get herself a new boyfriend and forget it.
Brenda is a determined woman. She went to her MP, the chief of the Montreal police and Mayor Jean Drapeau. She threatened to report the sergeant’s remarks to the press. It took her a month to do it, but by screaming in the right places she got an abduction warrant issued for Alan. It took her another month of nagging to get the police to search his girl friend Gwen’s family’s homes. They were checking the mail at her parents’ house in Pembroke, Ontario, when Gwen phoned to say hello. The police got on the line and warned her that there was a warrant out for Alan and they’d better drive carefully, wherever they were.
Alan began thinking seriously about
what he was going to do—build a new life in the United States or take the children home and face a possible prison term. He called his lawyer in Montreal (from a pay phone 40 miles from where he was staying, so that the call couldn’t be traced) and his lawyer told him Brenda would make a deal. Alan prepared a list of demands including the dropping of charges. Brenda agreed to almost all of them, knowing she could renege on everything as soon as she had the children back.
In mid-August, four months after he’d left, he brought the kids home. Brenda threw the agreement in the wastebasket, did not drop the charges, found herself a
new apartment with an unlisted number and hid out with the children. While the lawyers argued back and forth, Alan hung on to a new job by his fingernails. A rash exploded on his hands and arms. He had just tracked Brenda down when the lawyers came to a new agreement, four months after he brought the children back.
Like two medieval knights, exhausted from the stupendous effort of bashing each other with broadswords, they sit now in their separate camps. An armed truce. The children visit Alan every other weekend and one month in the summer. Brenda is convinced they were harmed by the experience; Alan disagrees. “They never asked for her once the whole time we were away,” he crows. Brenda says they rarely asked for Alan during the four months she hid them from him in Montreal.
He would like to get custody of the children, but he quotes the statistics bitterly. Seventy percent of women fighting for custody get it. Only 30% of men applying receive it. Alan thinks that stinks, as do the rules of custody. “Custody gives one parent complete control. She can take the kids legally anytime and she’s not guilty of kidnapping. But the result to the kids is the same—they lose one of their parents. I think that kidnapping of children by parents should be illegal but it should also be an offense to go against a court order on visiting rights. I took them because she was going to.”
The abduction warrant lies moldering in the police files. Alan has been told it will not be acted on.
Over the past five years it has become clear to the courts and to legislators that current law can’t cope with child snatching. Last January, California passed two amendments to its penal code. Section 278 makes child abduction after a custody order a felony punishable by a prison term of up to four years. Section 278.5 makes child-stealing prior to a custody order a felony punishable by a year in county jail or a fine. The police in Los Angeles County (population seven million) now pursue abducting parents as tenaciously as they go after car thieves. Parents who skip to new jurisdictions are being extradited. Robert Altman, deputy district attorney for the county, has no statistics on prosecutions yet, but he says his office has been inundated with requests for assistance.
Few people in Canada want child snatchers sent to Millhaven. Even Benno Friesen, the MP who last year wanted them sentenced to life imprisonment, has now changed his tune. He wants the criminal courts to support the civil courts. He’s not sure how that can be done, but he thinks we have to find a way; “We’re sowing to the wind and reaping the whirlwind on this.”
Some initiatives have been taken. Since 1975, seven provinces (all but Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan) have enacted model legislation called the Extra-Provincial Custody Orders Enforcement Act. It
states that the custody orders of any other jurisdiction—in Canada or elsewhere— should be upheld unless it can be shown that harm will come to the children. It is too early to say whether that will effectively deter child snatchers, but most lawyers believe it will go a long way to stamping out forum shopping. Justice Minister Ronald Basford believes these acts will help resolve international problems as well.
There are no strong international agreements on the return of abducted children. In 1961, six countries (Germany was one of them, Canada was not) signed a Hague convention which called for international custody enforcement. According to Ken Burke of External Affairs, the convention was “a paper tiger with no teeth.”
Basford thinks it’s time to try for new agreements. A proposal on the return of children was prepared by Canada for presentation to the Meeting of the Commonwealth Law Ministers in Winnipeg last month. Canada has also raised the issue for the agenda of the next Hague conference to be held in 1980. Basford is adamantly opposed to expanding the criminal law on child abduction. But as Benno Friesen points out, without criminal sanctions, parents won’t be able to get police help tracking down their kids. Ontario intends to introduce a law this fall giving provincial courts the right to order a provincial government agency or an employer to disclose the address of abductors. The effectiveness of Ontario’s action will be limited unless the federal government changes the appropriate legislation forbidding departments such as health and welfare, revenue, and the Unemployment Insurance Commission from revealing information about their clients. Basford says his officials are looking at that right now.
But none of these measures goes to the roots, the motivating forces driving parents to snatch and run. Divorce and custody litigation can be expensive and rancorous. The adversary process, according to Toronto family lawyer Conrad Willemse, can generate a winner/loser mentality instead of acceptance of the court’s solutions. We are a long way from a unified family court system in this country, one in which family problems could be aired before one judge, and all disputes trailing in the wake of a divorce petition could be settled in one courtroom. The hatred built up during long court battles often wipes out the tiny shreds of trust remaining between two people fighting over the kids. Snaps Friesen: “There is no law in the country that will cover all the bases of a breakdown in trust.”
Gloria Mackechnie has brought Phillip home to Toronto, to wait for the outcome of Hugh’s trial. She calls to say hello. “I guess you’ve made up your mind to stay in Toronto, right?”
“Just because I’m back doesn’t mean I’m staying. We’re selling everything we own. I’m leaving as soon as the trial is over. There’s nothing left for me here.”^