A story from the front line, republished with the kind permission of the author Sarah Marie, and the Centre for Women’s Justice.
Sarah Marie is a Hague mother who is fighting for justice – for herself and other mothers who are caught up in the nightmare of the Hague Abduction Convention. Her eloquence at the FiLiA Conference was profoundly moving.
As I boarded the flight to London, I could feel the bile rising in the back of my throat. This was the first time I had dared to venture more than a few hours from my New England home – never mind cross another international border. But my fate was sealed. I had to meet my sisters. I had just lost one sister days before stepping on the plane. At 32 years old, Narkis Golan, a strong, vibrant mother and fighter for systematic change of the broken system, was found dead with no rational explanation in her Brooklyn, NY apartment.
Just days before we had talked on the phone. When I told Narkis that my lawyer had given me the green light to fly, she was elated and wished she could go with me to read her speech at the Hague Mother’s symposium at FiLiA. Despite my fears and worries that I would be apprehended by US Marshals at gunpoint at the gate, I pushed forward. If I did get stopped, it wouldn’t be the first time I had been failed by the misogynistic police system or had been arrested violently. The last time I saw my children was the night the Mounties put a loaded gun to my head in a Canadian Air B&B, and I found myself charged with 2 felony accounts (facing up to 10 years in prison) for ‘abducting’ my own children, fleeing domestic violence perpetrated against both myself and my two young sons. It’s now been three years since I’ve seen or been allowed any type of contact with my boys.
Narkis was like many of the selfless women I had met who had fled abuse to protect her son and was the first ‘Hagued’ mother I had met. She was fighting a very black-and-white set of barbaric international laws which necessitate that a child, who has been relocated from one country to another, must be returned back to the borders of their ‘habitual residence’, often regardless of the circumstances.
In 1980 a multilateral Hague Convention treaty was amended by the existing members of the international law community, to add in a provision related to child abduction. According to the Hague Conference on Private International Law‘s (HCCH) official website, this provision was added: ‘to protect children from the harmful effects of wrongful removal and retention across international boundaries’.
Although the act was originally intended to prevent one parent from using international borders as a means of influencing parental contact, much of the current research has found that a disproportionately high number of cases are women fleeing ‘life-threatening violence’. In many such cases men have weaponized the Hague, using its filing as a means of coercive control; essentially shackling the woman and her child(ren) to whichever country she/they had been trapped in a cycle of abuse in. Research from a 2015 HCCH study estimated over 73% of the parents charged in Hague custody hearings (essentially international kidnapping) are women, and that ‘the overwhelming majority of grave risk cases involve the mother leaving family violence situations as the taking parent’. One of five, poorly defined, legal arguments which might be used by the mother in opposition to the return of her child under the Hague Convention treaty is the ‘grave risk of harm exception’. Used as an objection (and not the gold medal standard), a court may refuse to grant the return of the child if it causes ‘physical harm’, ‘psychological harm’, or otherwise places the child in an ‘intolerable situation’.
Failure to more succinctly define these risks, has led to a myriad of interpretations of the law depending on what court and country the case lands in. Because these outlines are so lacking, the best interest of the child (or in Narkis’ case the mother’s safety and well-being as well) is not always considered. In many cases, the father’s ‘habitual residence’, that the child should be automatically returned to their home country, is given more weight in family court than the protection of individuals.
“Being Hagued invariably puts the mother back in the father’s country—frequently without familial, social, financial or legal support—providing a perfect context for continued violence,”
“In many cases, children and custodial mothers are being sent back to a dangerous or abusive father from whom they fled,”Professor Joan S. Meier (GW Law)
In 2022 Globalarrk, a charity created to help study and support parents in international custody disputes and Hague custody cases, affirmed ‘courts need to accept the body of research which states that children are harmed both physically and psychologically by domestic abuse. It should be deemed intolerable for a child to have to live with any form of violence including psychological, verbal, financial, sexual, or coercive control’.
To date, over ONE HUNDRED countries around the world have entered into this horribly flawed agreement, in many cases putting women and children in harm’s way.
Narkis had been living in her home country of the US for years when she was served with a Hague notice. The courts had ordered the return of both her and her child back to Italy. There she and her son – who did not speak the language – would be confined to the perimeters of the country where her abusive ex had powerful ties and connections and she had no family or resources. Italy would become their cage and their keeper until her son reached a legal age where he could decide for himself.
Determined to keep her child safe, Narkis had done what many protective mothers had tried and failed to do in the broken family court system. She had managed to shield her child from an abusive father who had openly bragged about beating her in front of her son in the court record.
Narkis’ story was a beacon of light for so many of us who had been without hope for so long. It brought us together; sisters in solidarity from around the globe who had all been subjected to this plague called the Hague, many of whom I would be meeting for the first time in Cardiff. Narkis who had planned to attend virtually would not be there. The news of her death weighed heavy on our minds.
As the plane began to take off from the tarmac, the fear began to settle and the grief set in. My strong, amazing friend was gone, and all I had left of her were her words of encouragement to keep fighting for my sons ‘like hell’ and the speech in my hands she had written right before her death. She had passed the torch and it was my turn to be brave; to be extraordinary. I needed to stand tall and demand our rights as mothers. I would ask the world to stand with us. I would raise the flag of awareness that would break the glass ceiling and bring change to these barbaric laws.
I did make it to Cardiff like I promised you I would.
I read your amazing speech with courage.
Your sisters are still standing and fighting fiercely in your honor.