AS RELATIONSHIPS END IN ACRIMONY, HUNDREDS OF PARENTAL ABDUCTIONS TAKE PLACE EVERY YEAR. ULTIMATELY, THE YOUNG VICTIMS SUFFER THE MOST
Bouncing over the light chop on Georgian Bay, one work-hardened hand on the tiller of his small aluminum boat, Doug Gibbon looks a bit like an overgrown kid who cant wait to get back to the cottage. And in some ways, that’s pretty much what he is. Now 49, Gibbon has lived
on a small, windswept island just north of Parry Sound, Ont., for the past nine years. A carpenter who runs a local contracting business, constructing and renovating cottages, Gibbon built his own little cabin a few hundred metres from die modest cottage his parents bought in die early 1960s. He lives there winter raid summer, on his own, and it seems there is nothing he wants for—with one overwhelming exception.
In 1994, Phyllis Hollett, the mother of his four-year-old son, disappeared with the child. Gibbon has not seen or lieai'd from eidier of diem since. Aldiough police officers say dieir file is still open and diere is a Canada-wide warrant for Holletts arrest, Gibbon believes they have given up on his case. Quiet-spoken, almost shy, Gibbon is matter-of-fact as
he talks about how a short relationship with Hollett followed by a drawn-out batde over access to his son, Gavin Hollett, turned into a personal tragedy. “Its almost worse dirai deadi, because you don't know what has happened,’’ Gibbon says, his soft voice trailing off G would just like to know that he is happy, if he plays baseball—a picture would be great, but of course, I’ll never get that.”
There are lots of old pictures of his son in Gibbon’s photo albums. Gavin, nestling in his father’s arm with a bottle at the table. Gavin beaming on the dock, a homemade paddle in his hand. Gavin in a life jacket, about to leap into brilliant blue water. Now, the closest thing to a current picture that Gibbon has is a computer-generated image put together by experts at the Virginia-based
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
They used childhood pictures of family members on both sides, including photos of grandparents and a half sibling, to simulate what Gavin might look like at age 10. Gibbon went to the Virginia centre because of his frustration with Canadian authorities. The composite photo produced here, for instance, showed a murky blob that appears to be a photo of Gavin at 4, grotesquely stretched out to make him look bigger. “Its a joke,” Gibbon says in disgust. “Why doesn’t anybody in this country know how to use a computer properly?”
Forgive his hyperbole. The loss of a child, under any circumstances, is devastating. And to know that a child is out there, missing only because of the criminal actions of an estranged partner, and that the police seem powerless to help, is especially cmel. But not unusual. While abductions by strangers draw the headlines, there were only 42 in Canada last year, compared with 416 parental abduction cases listed on the database of the Canadian Police Information Centre. Those are mosdy cases where charges have been laid. There are many more instances of parental abduction that are either unreported or that go through the civil courts, so the actual number of abductions is unknown.
Contrary to the usual stereotypes, mothers are now as likely to
abduct as fathers, a significant shift from the situation two decades ago, when fathers were the typical culprits. Rhonda Morgan, executive director of the Missing Children Society of Canada Calgary headquarters and a 17-year veteran of the abduction wars, notes that of the 179 cases that her office has worked on over the past 15 years, 112 abductions were by mothers and 67 were by fathers. “The situations that I see all seem to start the same way,” she observes. “When the parents split, the mother retains daily care and control of the child. And a lot of moms in that situation don’t want the dads around, period. They don’t think about the kids when they are doing it, they just flee.” But according to Marlene Dailey, chief researcher and service developer for the Missing Children’s Registry, the Ottawa-based RCMP unit that hunts for missing kids: “It’s not the numbers, or which parent is doing it, that is the most significant issue. It’s the pain and stress that is caused to the children and their families.”
That certainly is true in Gavin’s case. The abduction has been devastating to immediate family, but the trauma has also been felt
by relatives, friends, lawyers and even, apparently, the police officers charged with finding the child. It is a story that also reveals the disturbing helplessness of the courts and police when a parent vanishes without a trace. Despite what Const. Don Gore of the Ontario Provincial Police in Parry Sound says was a prolonged and vigorous effort to find Phyllis and Gavin, there are still no leads. “It is,” says Gore, “as if she has disappeared off the face of the earth.”
In most cases of parental abduction there appears to be one common feature: an extremely acrimonious separation. Gibbon and Hollett split in early 1991 when Gavin was about six months old, and over the next 3 V2 years, one court order followed another as the two repeatedly failed to reach agreement on access. Those battles finally led to a week-long trial, which included allegations by Hollett that Gibbon had sexually abused Gavin. In a lengthy ruling, Judge Louise Gauthier of the provincial division of Ontario Court concluded that the charges were baseless, that Gavin enjoyed his visits with his father and that Gibbon was entitled to regular, unsupervised access.
That was in November, 1994. In early December, his next scheduled visit with Gavin, Gibbon called Hollett’s Ottawa home
to finalize the arrangements. He couldn’t reach her. The next day, Gibbon called the police. They talked to a neighbour, who confirmed that Hollett had moved, even leaving behind her 14-year-old son from another marriage. (The boy stayed with the neighbour until he was picked up by his father.) “At first, I thought that they would show up within a few weeks,” Gibbon recalls quiedy.
Despite Gibbon’s frustration with Canadian authorities, Gore says the police investigation was exhaustive: there were multiple searches of social services and health records, as well as banking information. Friends and relatives were subpoenaed to give evidence and crossexamined on their knowledge of Hollett’s whereabouts. When Hollett’s mother died, a plainclothes officer staked out her funeral in Parry Sound, hoping that Hollett might show. The case was also reviewed by staff at the RCMP Missing Children’s Registry. As well, nonprofit agencies such as the Missing Children Society of Canada are continuing to investigate the case. “It looks to the family that nothing is being done because nothing has happened,” says Gore. “In nine cases out of 10, something comes up. But she’s gone, and we’ve got nothing.” Gore now believes that Hollett and Gavin both have altered identities and may be living in a self-sufficient community, such as a religious commune. “Gavin probably doesn’t even know his own name,” Gore says.
That, of course, does not make things any easier for those left behind. Gibbon’s mother, Joan, had a close attachment to Gavin, her first grandchild, and was devastated when he disappeared. “It still hurts,” she says. “You remember how sweet and funny he was,
and towards the end, how anxious.
He kept saying, ‘Mommy wont let me come back.’ I reassured him that wasn’t true, but I guess I should have listened.”
Hollett’s family has also suffered.
She has two sisters who say they have not seen or heard from her since the disappearance. “I think she did all this in desperation,” says Ella Haynes, one of the sisters. “She was convinced that Gavin was being abused.” And Hollett’s other son, who works in a factory about two hours east of Toronto, still struggles with his memories. He had, he says, no inkling that his mother would disappear. “I was angry and shocked—those were my first feelings,” the young man, who requested anonymity, told Macleans. “I have a lot of questions. I don’t understand why it had to be done that way. I still dream about her sometimes.” Although he has sympathy for his mother’s concern about Gavin, it is clear he feels betrayed. “If I could talk to her, I would say, ‘Think before you act. Take other people’s feelings into consideration.’ I’m sure that Gavin will only get her side of the story. If I was in his shoes, I’d be mad about that.”
It’s an important point, experts say—abducted children seem to suffer the most of anyone. Generally, they are young, highly dependent on one parent, and battle-scarred by years of custody and access disputes. Too often, the abducting parent vilifies the abandoned partner, and may go so far as to tell the child the other parent is dead. With no one else to turn to, the
child clings to the abductor, resenting the absent parent. “There’s a term for it—parental alienation syndrome,” says Patrick Bergeron, co-executive director of the Missing Children’s Network Canada, in Montreal. “The abducted child forms an intense bond with the abducting parent—they have no choice.” Bergeron refers to the process that takes place as “brainwashing” and says that, sadly, it is often impossible to reverse. “It has nothing to do with the love of the child,” he says. “It’s about revenge against the other parent.”
The result can be deep-seated psychological problems that linger for years. One Canadian father, who requested anonymity to protect his daughters, is still grappling with the profound damage caused by the abduction of the two girls even though they were only alone with the mother for about 21 months. The man had already spent years in court with his former wife, a Dutch national, finally winning sole custody and sole guardianship when his daughters were 8 and 6. Three years later, she and her third husband—a Canadian with an extensive criminal record—disappeared from their Vancouver Island home with the girls during an access visit.
The father, a businessman, spent more than a year and a half searching for them himself, after concluding that Canadian police couldn’t—or wouldn’t—find the girls. His campaign generated mountains of court documents, and drew in police, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges and the media in Canada, England and the Netherlands. Finally, after a dramatic showdown between
Dutch police and the abductors on a houseboat in a small community in Holland, the children were retrieved. All told, getting his daughters back cost him more than $50,000. “You have to become absorbed in the culture of finding missing kids,” the man says in hindsight. “You have to work your way into the bureaucracy, get someone to take a personal interest in your case. It takes over your life.”
But the most painful events still lay ahead. The children, 12 and 10 when they were finally returned to Canada in December, 1999, refused to accompany their father on the plane from Europe to Vancouver. And they objected so strenuously to going with their grandfather that the airline demanded they get off the plane in Calgary. When they finally arrived at the fathers community on Vancouver Island, the children were initially placed in foster care to help ease them back into their old lives. But it has been an uphill battle. “The counsellors said they were the two most traumatized children they have ever worked with,” the man says. “They explained it to me this way: before the abduction, I
IT’S ABOUT REVENGE AGAINST THE OTHER PARENT/ SAYS ONE EXPERT
was their sole support. After they were taken, I became untrustworthy in their eyes, even though it was not my fault. They were on the run, they became fugitives, they were totally co-opted by the process of being on the run.”
The girls, now 14 and 11, have been living with their father since last October. The family decided to leave the West Coast—partly to escape the lingering influence of the mothers friends—and are now living about an hour outside of Toronto. “It is devastating when they get back and they don’t want to be with you,” the man says. “They wont let me hug them, and they don’t call me Dad.” But there has been improvement. The girls, who attend local
schools, are now willing to acknowledge that the problems between their parents may be at least half their mother’s fault, not totally their father’s. Then he mentions that his younger daughter recendy surprised him by suggesting an outing that most parents would likely take for granted: “She said, ‘I’d like to go to the mall with you, and buy you a birthday present,’ ” he says, beaming. “That’s wonderful progress.”
A ngelina Medjed’s ex-husband, Zoran Cosovic, kidnapped their son, Aleksandar, then 7, during an access visit in A JL 1997. From the instant the Toronto-area psychiatric nurse realized what had happened—Aleksandar’s school called on Monday morning to say he had not arrived—Medjed flew into action. A star athlete in her native Yugoslavia, Medjed turned herself into a one-woman SWAT team to get Alex back from Yugoslavia, where her husband had taken him.
Armed with a Canadian order for sole custody, she inundated Canadian and Yugoslav officials, from police and judges to diplomats and politicians, with demands that Alex be returned. In addition to her full-time work, Medjed pumped gas and delivered pizza to raise money for her fight: for one seven-month period, she recalls ruefully, she slept only three or four hours a night and never had a day off. “What could I do?” she says, shrugging. “Without my son, I am nothing.”
After a year of trying to get Alex back through conventional methods, including obtaining a custody order in Yugoslavia that police did not enforce, Medjed took matters into her own hands. She travelled to Belgrade, where friends had discovered her son’s whereabouts. To confirm his identity, she climbed to the top of a neighbouring building, and then a nearby tree, using a pair of binoculars to peer into the apartment where he lived with an aunt. “When I saw my son eating mashed potatoes and meatballs, my heart was pounding so much I wanted to scream,” she remembers.
The next day, she went to his school while students were still entering for the day and left an envelope with documents verifying her right to custody in Canada and Yugoslavia in his class-
room. She then met her son as he came down a hallway, and though Alex said he was worried that his father would kill them, he agreed to accompany her out of the school. The pair jumped into a waiting car driven by friends, drove a few blocks and then switched cars. They then rushed to the Canadian Embassy, where Medjed set off the alarm by dashing past security guards. There she connected with officials who knew her story—but who weren’t expecting her Mission Impossible approach. Nevertheless, they accompanied her to the airport and used their diplomatic passes to escort her and Alex For
through immigration to the boarding area. “The 10or 15-minute wait we had for the plane seemed to take so long,” Medjed says, tears welling in her intense green eyes. “I knew that Yugoslav officials could still remove us.” In the end, they got on the flight without incident and, apart from some subsequent violent telephone threats from Cosovic, they have lived quiedy together ever since. Alex, who for six months showed signs of distress, such as checking under beds at night, appears to have adjusted well. But it is also clear that Medjed will never be quite the same. “I was emotionally drained by it, it was too much. But it also made me stronger,” she says.
\\TT ith so much at stake for children and their parents, why \ \ j do Canadian police so often seem stymied by abduction V Y cases? Retired RCMP staff sergeant John Oliver, who headed the Missing Children’s Registry in Ottawa for 12 years, says that about 60 per cent of international abduction cases handled by the registry are resolved, depending on where the abductor has landed. “If it’s the Middle East, you really don’t have much
hope,” he says, generally because most countries in that region are not signatories to The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
The frustration with domestic police forces is sometimes justified. “There are still a lot of officers out there who don’t recognize parental abduction as a crime,” he says. “It has only been in the Criminal Code for 15 years.” The problem, he adds, is that some officers believe abducted children are in no real danger because they are with a parent. And with so many other matters demanding their attention, a parental abduction may drop off the high priority list. “But that is totally the wrong attitude,” Oliver says. “The child can be taken out of the country within hours and could be in serious danger, especially from psychological damage.”
The hell of it, of course, is that the abandoned parent simply has no way of knowing for sure that their child is living a safe, stable existence. David Middleton has been on tenterhooks since last August, when his former wife failed to return their nine-year-old daughter, Brianna, from a vacation in Scodand. Authorities believe the two are now living somewhere in Europe. Middleton, manager for communications and marketing for the Edmonton YMCA, is clearly devastated. “Part of the torment is not knowing what Brianna’s life is like,” Middleton says. “What kind of questions does she ask her mom and what kind of answers is she getting.” Middleton and his former wife, Elaine MacPherson, 40, separated in 1994, before Brianna turned 3, and for a few years they § shared access to Brianna on an informal basis. But by 1997, they I were in court, scrapping over custody because MacPherson decided she wanted to move to the United States. Unhappy with the resulting order for shared custody, MacPherson then tried to persuade Middleton to move with her and Brianna to Scodand, where MacPherson spent her childhood and still has many relatives and friends. Middleton refused, but agreed to the summer holiday that ended in Brianna’s disappearance. For nine months, he has put his life on hold, meeting with police and lawyers, travelling to Edinburgh to look for Brianna and obtaining an order giving him sole custody. But despite the intervention of Interpol and the ruling of a Scotdsh court that Brianna must be returned to Alberta, the pair have not yet been found.
Middleton is far from giving up. He has been in touch links with private investigators in Britain. He has set up a Web
site, wunv.briannamiddleton.org, contacted the Missing Children Society of Canada, which made up a missing child poster and put him in contact with missing children’s organizations in Britain. He has talked to authorities in Britain, Spain and France. None of that, Middleton says, has been enough to track Brianna down. “It’s fair to say that their ability to help me has been limited by funding, or time, or lack of jurisdiction. And sometimes it’s even a lack of experience.”
Now, as he tells his story, Middleton still jumps up every time the phone rings in his living room, checking the call display to see if it might be the police with news of Brianna. He points out the board games he loved to play with Brianna, and her artwork displayed on a wall. He speaks of how they loved to read Harry Potter books together. And while he has received two cards from his daughter telling him that she loves him, that hardly makes up for her absence. “We had lots of fun together,” he says softly. “I miss her a lot.” In that sorrow, he is not alone.