Home » Challenges Faced By Stuck Expat Parents Due To International Child Custody Disputes

Challenges Faced By Stuck Expat Parents Due To International Child Custody Disputes

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast.

Did you know that if you move abroad with children, or have them while living in a foreign country and then split from your partner, you may not be able to bring your kids back home? You may also find yourself ‘stuck’ abroad, in a country that you no longer want to be in. It’s a situation that my guest Roz Osbourne has personal experience with, and it’s why she founded the charity, GlobalARRK more than a decade ago.

With Roz we’re going to deep-dive into how expats become stuck parents, why they’re so often mothers, and the risk factors that go along with their situations – for example, 81% report they have suffered domestic abuse. Keep listening until the end if you’re in an international relationship and have, or are considering kids. Roz has some practical advice to share to help prevent an international custody crisis.

Keep listening until the end if you’re in an international relationship and have or are considering kids, because Roz has some practical advice to share that could help prevent an international custody crisis.

Roz, it’s so lovely to have you on the Expat Focus podcast. Thank you for joining me.

Roz: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

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Carlie: I want to start off by asking how the GlobalARRK organization came about, if you can give me the history?

Roz: Yeah, absolutely. It seems a really long time ago now, and in a different world for me, because I set it up when I was a stuck parent myself in Portugal. So, we’d moved over to Portugal and had fantastic dreams of renovating a farmhouse, and it all went horribly wrong, resulting with me needing to return back to the UK with my two small children, at the time. At which point I realized, legally speaking, I wasn’t able to return back home with my children, and I was essentially stuck in Portugal. So, I decided to find out if any other moms were stuck around the world. And so, I started a Facebook page. At the time, it was called Expat Stuck Moms, and I realized, within a year, that there were hundreds and hundreds of moms in exactly the same position that I was in, not able to return home after having moved abroad with children.

And I was shocked, really, by how many moms were in an even worse situation than me, dealing with often domestic violence, not having enough money to survive, not able to get a job, not even having the right visa to stay in that country, but their children are not allowed to leave. And so, eventually, I got permission to return back to the UK with my children through the family court in Portugal. But I was, by this point, inundated with pleas for help, really, from other moms around the world. And I just felt that I couldn’t abandon them. So, eventually, I had to have help, so we had volunteers and the team was growing. We were collecting statistics and information, data that could be shared and all sorts by this point. So, we decided to register as a charity called the charity GlobalARRK.

Carlie: So, you are known as GlobalARRK, and the long form of that name is Global Action on Relocation and Return with Kids. Roz, I’m curious about the definition of a stuck parent. Is there a common or a very typical scenario in which a parent becomes stuck abroad?

Roz: Yeah, so we define stuck parent as a parent who cannot return back to live in what they consider to be their home country with their children after a relocation abroad. So, that could be typically where a family moves abroad, or has children abroad, and they’ve had to separate often because of domestic abuse, is what we’ve realized throughout the years. Sometimes also through things happening, like affairs and other tragic life events happening. And usually, it’s the mom that needs to return back to her home country to the safety of family and friends, and job opportunities, and security. And at that point, it’s similar to my story, really, realizing that she’s not able to return home.

So, at that point, they often do find GlobalARRK and we’re able to provide some support. We have a free helpline, we have fact sheets and legal support, and legal networks that we can signpost people to. We also have befriending teams, so they offer befriending calls weekly, and a peer support group where the moms, and we also have a dads group as well, can talk to each other and support each other through what is often the most difficult time of their lives.

Carlie: Can you explain to me the rights of a child living abroad? That means if the parents have separated, it’s not as simple as the mom, as you mentioned, taking the kids and going home.

Roz: Yeah, this is something that lots of people don’t realize when they’re deciding to move abroad. So, it’s a really important thing to discuss, so thanks for raising it. The main thing that people don’t understand, and it’s partly because it is just such a complex area of the law, is this term habitual residence. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that before?

Carlie: Only in the case of my tax returns.

Roz: Right, exactly. So, it’s used in lots of different contexts, which is partly why it’s so tricky for people to understand. So, the term habitual residence, in terms of children, is completely different to habitual residence in terms of your tax, or you have to go back every six months to prove that you are a resident somewhere or whatever it is. So, in terms of children, legally speaking, their habitual residence updates to the new country very quickly after the parents have decided to move together abroad. So, by very quickly, this is between no months, so as soon as you get off the plane, up to six months. And that varies around the world, country to country.

And so, once your child is deemed habitually resident in that new country, which happens automatically after they move, you would need both parents’ permission to return to the first country. Or if you can’t get both parents to agree, you’d need to go to the family court in the country where you’ve moved to, to get permission from the court. This is something that so many families just don’t know before they move abroad. And they don’t, obviously, then think it through to, “What if this happens? What if that happens? What would we do in this situation?” And often you don’t realize until it’s too late.

Carlie: So, if the other parent really disagrees with the children being taken to another country, they’re automatically allowed to stay, or have to stay, due to this habitual residence rule.

Roz: Yeah, so the default, really, is to stay in the new country once the child has become habitually resident there. And so, the other parent doesn’t need to do anything, because that is just the default. And what we see in around 20% of cases, is that the immigration side of things for the parent clashes with the habitual residence for the child. So, you can have a mom who, because she had a spousal visa, for example, after separation she’s no longer eligible to stay in the new country or work there, whereas the child must stay, and she’s the primary carer of that child.

So, there’s a clash between the two different laws, the family law and the immigration law. And this causes huge amounts of stress and heartache. Often we see that it can be resolved. Sometimes we’ve seen moms have to go to the media, because they’ve had no luck with the immigration authorities, so they’ve had to go to the media, and then through that route they’ve then convinced the immigration authorities that they need to stay in that country in order to care for their child who can’t leave.

Carlie: I was going to ask, how much do the authorities consider the situation of the stuck parents in determining what’s best or what their status should be? And it sounds like it’s really not straightforward or easy.

Roz: It depends country by country. We’ve had quite a few issues in New Zealand, actually.

Carlie: Oh, really?

Roz: Where the immigration authorities really don’t, necessarily, see that the mother needs to stay, especially in those situations where you have domestic violence and the child’s maybe not able to be taken care of by the father, maybe just having supervised contact or something like that. It seems completely crazy that the immigration authorities are telling the mother she has to go, and it really is a complete nightmare for people.

Carlie: And we keep talking about the mother, and I don’t want to sound like it’s always the female parents in this situation, or the female identifying parent in this situation, but I even know, speaking to expat ladies where I am in France and, “Oh, well, what brought you to France? Or what brought you abroad?” And anecdotally, it seems to be the case more often that it’s the woman moving for the male in the relationship than the other way around. I don’t know if you’ve got official research that shows that, but it certainly seems to be the case to me and my situation as well.

Roz: Yeah. So, as GlobalARRK, we support mothers and fathers, and we encourage both to get in contact with us for support, but in reality, it’s around 99% mothers that gain in contact with us. We do try to appeal to fathers as well, but it really is an issue that mainly affects mothers. So, you would’ve thought things would be changing. I’d like to think things would be changing in terms of work opportunities and things like this, and I imagine it will just take time. But at the moment, it is quite a gendered issue of the stuck parent issue. Yeah.

Carlie: Can you elaborate for me on why stuck, single parents tend to be in the high-risk category for issues like poverty, domestic abuse? What is it about their situation that means these are more likely to be happening to them?

Roz: Yeah. I was thinking about this. So, we have realized, over time, that almost every case involves domestic violence, which initially surprised us as well. What we’ve come to realize is that, actually, if you go to the family courts and you look generally in family court proceedings, most of those cases are involving domestic violence as well. And it’s usually because, obviously, most families in this situation, you’ve got mom who wants to go back to her home country and dad who maybe doesn’t so much. Most situations, most families, are able to sort these things out and mediate between themselves and come to some kind of agreement for the sake of the children.

Carlie: And just to interrupt, if that agreement can be made, there’s nothing stopping, for example, the mother taking that child back to their home country?

Roz: Absolutely. So, if the parents can agree between themselves where the child should live. But the problem that we see with relationships that involve domestic violence, obviously they can’t reach that agreement, so you’ve got that conflict. They often call it high-conflict relationships in the court, but we would prefer to rephrase that as, actually, these are abusive relationships.

Carlie: Yeah, let’s call it what it is. Yeah.

Roz: Yeah, really, it’s often very one-sided. You’ve got one person who unfortunately is very abusive and preventing the other parent from accessing maybe what they need, whether that is finance, or safety, or support network and things like that. So, when it comes to Hague Convention cases or even relocation cases, which are the sort of ones that we’re involved in, they’re usually high conflict, they are usually involving abuse, because those parents, they can’t come to that agreement for the sake of the children.

Carlie: That’s so sad. And as you say, disappointingly, so common. Are there things that can work in the stuck parent’s favor if they, for example, have filed police reports, have documented things? Can that all work to help their case?

Roz: So, I think it probably depends what type of case we’re talking about. So, we deal with two types of cases, relocation/leave to remove, which is when the parent, obviously, they can’t come to an agreement with the other parent to go back home with the children, so they have to apply to the local family court, and that’s called a relocation/leave to remove application. So, in those types of cases, often it’s mom wants to return home because of domestic violence. What we see is quite often lawyers advise them not to tell the court about the domestic violence in those cases, because it can actually harm their chances of success.

Carlie: And why would that be the case?

Roz: Yeah, I know, it sounds completely crazy. But the reason is because judges want to see that the contact will be continued with the child and the other parent that they’re moving away from, and where they think that the contact is going to be severed because of high conflict or domestic violence risk, they are less likely to grant that relocation. So, that’s something that we’d really like to see change, because the reality on the ground is, of course, many moms do need to go back to the safety of their home country. They need to be able to apply to the family court to be able to do that. And we believe that that should be an acceptable thing for them to be honest about and to talk about in court. And unfortunately, they’re not able to do that at the moment. So, the other type of case that we deal with, is the Hague Convention cases. I don’t know if you’ve really heard much about the Hague Convention 1980.

Carlie: I read a couple of articles on your website, and my next question was going to be the Hague Convention. I hear about it in movies all the time. They always drop the Hague Convention in those thriller films, but it’s a very real thing. The Hague Abduction Convention. Roz, what’s wrong with it?

Roz: That’s a really big question. Right, so just to backpedal a little bit and explain a little bit when we hear about from Hague Convention parents. So, in 75% of cases around the world, it’s a primary caring mother taking her children back to her home country. And then the left behind parent uses the Hague Convention 1980, there’s other conventions too at 1996, for example, it’s very similar, in order to apply to the court in the country where they have moved to, to get that child returned to the country of their so-called habitual residence where they were living before.

So, in nearly every case that we hear about, and it’s very much understood to be nearly every case, these mothers are moving after domestic violence, so they’re moving to escape the violence. And it can be also other issues as well. Child protection issues, can also be financial abuse, can be a whole range of reasons why they have taken their child. Often they have never heard of the Hague Convention when they do it, so it’s a complete shock to them when they go back to their home country with their children, and then they get served papers and they’re told that they must be in court, usually the next week or the following week.

Carlie: Oh, that’s quite quick.

Roz: They aim for the whole proceeding to be finished in six weeks. And the general understanding is that the child will usually be returned-

Carlie: To the habitual place of residence.

Roz: Yes.

Carlie: Aka, back abroad.

Roz: Back abroad with, usually, the perpetrator of the abuse. So, there are exceptions to return that the judge can order a non-return for very limited reasons.

Carlie: But surely abuse and evidence of abuse can be one of these reasons?

Roz: You would’ve thought so. One of the articles is called Article 13B, which is grave risk of harm. So, the taking parent can argue that, if the child was returned to the country of habitual residence, they would be faced with a grave risk of harm. Now, this is about the child, so it’s very difficult to be successful with that argument in the current way that the courts interpret Article 13B. They often don’t make the link between the child’s safety and the mother’s safety, and what’s happened previously. It’s got to be what they call forward-facing. And what they tend to be doing in court is saying, “Okay, so there was domestic violence, we accept that, but either this is not a risk to the child, it’s only risk to the mother, or we are going to put into place undertakings or orders of protection so that the child can be returned.” Mother can return too if she chooses and she’s going to have these orders of protection. Unfortunately, the orders of protection are usually only valid in the country where they were made.

Carlie: Not in the country where the mother’s hypothetically going back with the child.

Roz: Exactly. And it’s absolutely tragic. I hate to see these orders in court where it says, “Undertaking father is not to do this, father is not to come within certain distance, father is to give finance, father is to let mother use car, etc.” Because you just know they’re not enforceable. And we see it all the time where moms go back with their piece of paper, their order of protection, and they show it to the police when it’s broken. The police say, “Well, this isn’t made in this country, nothing to do with us.” So, that is something that we’d really like to get changed with the Convention, is that first of all, domestic violence is taken seriously, and that it is recognized that the child is a victim of domestic violence, especially when he or she has seen the violence towards their primary caring mother.

Certainly in UK law, in the Domestic Violence Act 2021, it is recognized that the child is a victim themselves of domestic violence when they have been in the house or witnessed domestic violence, they are a victim. But what we are seeing with Hague Convention cases, it’s lagging behind there, they’re not making that connection at all. And then, if they do make a ruling to send the child back, they really need to be properly protecting the child and the primary caring mother. If they’re going to make protection orders, they need to be enforceable.

Carlie: 100%.

Roz: If they can’t be enforceable, they shouldn’t be sending them back. And we’d really like to see proper follow-ups with social services, and real proper linking up with child protection agencies across borders, because unfortunately, what we see is children going back, especially if they’re going back on their own, because mom feels unable to go back with the child, the child can just get lost, really. And mom can not have any further contact, not know if her child is okay. It’s chilling the stories that we hear after children are returned and mom’s just frantic to know that the child is safe, but there just isn’t a system for checking up.

Carlie: I’ve always been very feminist about this and thinking, “if I don’t want to be in a place, I shouldn’t have to stay there.” And I say to my partner all the time, “Well, if we weren’t together, I would go back to Australia, because I love France, I’ve made it my home, but ultimately, I’m here for you.” And so, it actually makes me a little angry inside to think there are parents out there who can’t choose to be back with their community, their support networks, who they need, their villages to be able to thrive as a single parent with their children because of these laws. It just makes me so angry to think about it, because I’d hate to be living anywhere where I don’t want to be anymore.

Roz: Yeah, it’s incredibly hard, emotionally, for those stuck moms. Because like you say, being a single parent is hard enough on its own, but being a single parent in a country where you don’t speak the language well, you don’t have your family, your community, you may be struggling for money, you may be not eligible for benefits, and there’s a whole raft of challenges, let’s say, for those stuck moms. And underpinning it all is this sense of being trapped against your will by somebody who has been often abusive, and it can feel like an extension of that abuse and control as well. And it’s doubled, I think, for those moms where the father is not actually taking responsibility for the child, so there are moms that-

Carlie: Forcing me to stay here, and yet you’re not contributing?

Roz: Right. So, there are dads who actually don’t see the child very often at all, maybe once a month for an afternoon and they take them out to the park or something, and still the mom is forced to stay in a country where she doesn’t want to be and she cannot thrive because of that. And this is really down to the court. They’re just so insistent on the benefit of the contact with both parents, even if you have an abusive parent, even if the parent doesn’t see the child. They’re so fixed on it, and we just think they need to see the bigger picture and really think about what’s best for that child.

Carlie: Roz, we’re recording this in early 2024, and in October of last year there was an important meeting about the Hague Abduction Convention. Can you tell me how that went?

Roz: Well, not really. So, we applied to go in and be a part of the meeting as, really, the only charity in the world supporting stuck parents globally, and they turned us down, saying that we weren’t international enough. Which is completely crazy. So, we didn’t attend the actual meeting. We did go and meet Dr. Christophe Bernasconi outside with our petition, because we had 38,000 signatures on our petition from people around the world, saying that we need to have these changes to the convention. As a result of that and other actions taken by mother’s writing letters and other organizations such as Felia, who’ve done some fantastic work campaigning this year, we have persuaded them to have a new forum on domestic violence and the Hague Convention.

Carlie: June of this year.

Roz: Which will be happening in June of this year. So, we’re really hoping to be able to discuss some of these issues, and to elevate the voices of those with lived experience in this area, and to ultimately improve the system for families. Because at the moment, it is just completely broken. Up until this point, there has been no official recognition that this is an issue, or that there are changes needed to the Convention to protect families. We are seeing that slowly begin to change, and it has been great to start to work with Dr. Christophe Bernasconi, who has been very understanding, but we still wait to see, really, what concrete actions can be put into place to protect families.

Carlie: In the meantime, Roz, thinking about when you moved abroad and became a stuck parent, and thinking about people moving abroad today where they might fall in love with someone, or they might move as a couple and have children, or they might move as parents. And it’s very unromantic and it’s not something you want to think about when your relationship is going great. However, we do know the percentages of relationships that end in divorce, for example. So, being practical, what do you recommend that parent couples do now, while they’re abroad, ahead of a move abroad, to think about the future and ensure that, if the worst happens, they have ways of dealing with it that doesn’t result in these worst-case scenarios of stuck parents?

Roz: Yeah. So, it is really important to have those difficult conversations with your partner and to discuss the, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” And if you are able to come to an agreement, what I would do is to visit a family lawyer who would be able to give some advice around the international family aspects, and to put what you have agreed together in writing and to form, in a sense, what could be called a prenup type agreement, but for moving abroad and having children abroad.

It wouldn’t necessarily be watertight if you had to rely on it in court, but it’s always helpful to have those agreements in place so that, if things do go wrong, then you can fall back on that and say, “Well, do you remember what we did discuss and what we did agree together?” It’s something that could be shown in court if you had to, but what we see is, mostly if parents have made an agreement between themselves in the beginning, they don’t need to go to court.

Carlie: It’s more likely to be amicable without this conflict.

Roz: Absolutely, yeah. So, it’s definitely just worth having those difficult conversations. And if you feel like you can’t have those difficult conversations with your partner, it’s really maybe time to think a little bit more about why that is? Is the relationship a healthy relationship? Are you okay in other areas? And then maybe to reach out to us, or to maybe a domestic violence organization, or some counselor, or reach out to somebody to discuss why you are unable to have those difficult conversations.

Carlie: And if any of our listeners recognize their own situation and what we’ve discussed today, what is the best way to get in touch with the GlobalARRK to find out about the services that you can provide?

Roz: We are more than happy to help at any stage of someone’s journey, whether they’re just worried about something for the future, or they’d like to discuss moving abroad initially. We love those emails, because those are the ones where we can prevent-

Carlie: Here’s my checklist.

Roz: They’re great, we love it when somebody gets in contact saying that. Or maybe if you can feel that things are going wrong or things have gone wrong, we’re here to help at any stage of people’s journey. And the best way to reach out to us is by email, so it’s info@globalarrk.org, and ARRK is confusingly spelled with two R’s, so maybe we can put that in the program notes or something.

Carlie: Looks Dutch or Danish or something. Wonderful. Roz, it’s been so good to speak to you today about such an important issue. Thank you so much for explaining the subject of stuck parents, what expat parents can do in these situations, and importantly, how can they prevent these situations.

Roz: Thanks for having me.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. You can find more information at globalarrk.org, that’s ARRK with two ‘R’s. And for more practical advice on all aspects of moving abroad, check out our website, expatfocus.com. Don’t forget to roll back through our podcast archive on your app of choice, or on our YouTube channel, you can find it by searching Expat Focus, and I’ll catch you next time.