October 21, 2015
Catherine Meyer CBE has been chief executive of Parents and Abducted Children Together since she founded it in 1999. From 2010 to 2015 she was a national treasurer of the Conservative Party.
This evening, in the Boothroyd Room at Portcullis House, an extraordinary film will be screened in the presence of the Home Secretary, Theresa May. It’s a documentary called Sarah Cecilie. It tells the story of how in 1974, as a four-year old child, Sarah Cecilie Finkelstein is abducted by her American father, Herbert, and flown to the US from Norway, while her Norwegian mother, Tone, cooks the family supper.
For the next 13 years, Sarah Cecilie and her father are on the run from the American authorities. She has no contact with Tone, while Herbert indoctrinates Sarah Cecilie to believe that she has been abandoned by her mother. It is only when, as a teenager, Sarah Cecilie sees her image as a missing child on a milk carton that she realises that her mother has never stopped looking for her, and the two are finally reunited.
You might think, then, that the story has a happy ending. You would be wrong – as this film harrowingly illustrates. The only voices you hear are those of the main protagonists: the abducted child, now an adult with her own two sons; the victim-mother living alone with her memories; the abducting father holed up in squalor in Jerusalem; and – one of the most moving – Sarah Cecilie’s half-brother, part observer, part participant in this tragedy. The four voices, woven together, describe a family shattered by an experience from which nobody emerges undamaged.
As founder and chief executive of the charity Parents and Abducted Children Together (PACT), I conceived this film with Professor Glenn Gebhard of Loyola Marymount University in the US, a much-acclaimed documentary maker. For 20 years, we have campaigned together against parental child abduction and parental alienation – the process by which one estranged parent indoctrinates the child against the other, such that the child comes to hate and fear the left-behind parent.
Sarah Cecilie is not the first documentary that Glenn and I have made together. In our 2005 production, Victims of Another War, we brought together three adults, one of them Sarah Cecilie, to describe the long-term effects of their abduction. A decade later, Sarah Cecilie builds on this first film by offering an unprecedented view of an entire family suffering from the aftershocks of abduction.
That the film pulls no punches about parental abduction is in large part down to the unsparing candour of Sarah Cecilie. It also owes much to the fact that Glenn and I both lost our own children to abduction by an estranged German spouse. He and I first met in Washington DC, when my husband, Sir Christopher Meyer, was our Ambassador to the USA. We discovered striking similarities between our cases, not least painfully drawn-out German court proceedings and a refusal to enforce access agreements (features, as we were later to discover after meeting other parents in a similar predicament with Germany, of the systemic bias of its courts against foreign parents).
In this way, German justice created a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which the longer the abducted child was kept under the alienating influence of the abducting parent, the less it wanted contact with the left behind parent. It took a full decade before we were able to see our children again under normal circumstances in the UK and US. For both of us and our children, now adults, dumping the baggage of the past has been a long and sometimes very painful business.
From its first creation, my charity PACT has campaigned to raise the public profile of parental child abduction across frontiers; and to persuade governments to take action against it. I started out by co-chairing in Washington two international conferences on the 1980 Hague Abduction Convention, the only international instrument designed specifically to tackle parental child abduction across frontiers. PACT’s aim was to close the Convention’s loopholes. Its key requirement is that an abducted child should be returned without delay to its “country of habitual residence”. But not all nations are signatories; and, as we see in Sarah Cecilie, an abducting parent could too easily use the objections of the alienated child to thwart the Convention’s intent.
The Convention works better today, but is far from perfect. Over the years, PACT has had to campaign on many other fronts. I have given evidence to the House of Commons All-Party Group on Child Abduction and instigated questions and adjournment debates in the Commons. In the US, I was invited to give evidence to committees of the Senate and House of Representatives. This led to the two chambers passing three concurrent resolutions, all calling for the better implementation of the Hague Convention. We have also turned our guns on the EU, and were glad to see the introduction by Brussels in 2001 of legislation requiring the mutual recognition of custody orders by member-states.
Closer to home, thanks to PACT’s co-operation with Theresa May and her former special adviser at the Home Office, Nick Timothy, now a Trustee of PACT, the government decided earlier this year to insert in leaflets distributed with all new passports a warning against taking a child out of the country without appropriate consent; and advice on what to do if you fear your child is at risk of abduction overseas.
PACT’s work never stops. The incidence of international parental child abduction continues to grow. Every day two children are abducted from the UK by a parent. That’s probably an underestimate. I would like to see the government tighten exit controls to stop in its tracks parental child abduction abroad. That’s PACT’s next campaign. Meanwhile, if this film helps save just one family from the torment that Sarah Cecilie and her family endured, it will have been well worth making.
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