How to protect children at risk of abduction

How should social workers react when children in care, or children about whom there are concerns, are whisked abroad by family members? Louise Tickle reports

How should social workers react when children in care, or children about whom there are concerns, are whisked abroad by family members? Louise Tickle reports

The recent chilling case of Rebecca and Daniel Smith who were allegedly killed by their mother in Spain because she was terrified they would be taken into care is a tragic example of what is becoming an increasing problem for social workers.

Meena Enawalla, operations manager for Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), says the charity has noticed a sharp increase in callers requiring urgent assistance for children who have been taken overseas by their parents. “These children are often subject to child protection plans or care orders.”

Colin Green, safeguarding spokesman for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says that while abductions of children in care are infrequent they are far from unknown and social workers should be assessing the flight risk of the parents at an early stage of every case.

This should especially be the case if the parents have a past history, as has been alleged in the recent case of twins who were snatched by their mother during a contact visit – her second attempt to do so since her children had been taken into care.

But the issues raised after a child is actually abducted are far from simple, and particularly so if they are taken overseas.

If a child is not yet in local authority care but a social worker is concerned for their welfare, social services has no official jurisdiction in another country should the parent decide to leave the UK with family in tow, says Cliff James, head of safeguarding at Suffolk Council. Suffolk has had its fair share of such cases with two pregnant women fleeing overseas to prevent their babies being taken into care earlier this year.

James says a social worker’s only option is to have a strategy discussion with police and other agencies such as the UK Border Agency which will treat it as a missing person case, and also inform the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they have reason to believe the child is at significant risk of harm.

If a social worker knows which country the parent is likely to have gone to “then they can go straight to the local authority in that country, send them details, and they will go and make enquiries. You don’t, however, have the right to simply go and get them.”

Enawalla confirms this: “There’s a misconception on the part of both professionals and parents that policy and procedures overseas mirror those in the UK. But a care order in the UK may not be valid in another country – it may be totally meaningless,” she observes.

She also warns that being whisked away overseas can result in psychological trauma for the child and fear about their own safety, as well as worries about the family and friends left behind. They become isolated and confused and have nobody to talk to.

“It is equally worrying for younger children who are not able to voice an opinion and ask for help. The sudden removal could inadvertently place the child at risk if local services overseas are unaware the child is in their jurisdiction and the parents are in hiding.”

If a social worker senses a looming crisis in a family where the child is not yet in care, James says action can be taken very swiftly if there are concerns that a child may be bundled abroad.

Under the Children Act social services can apply for an emergency protection order which can be granted the same day. In an extreme emergency police can exercise their powers and immediately take the child into police protection for 72 hours.

However, Enawalla points out that it is also necessary for social workers to think about the flight risks in a more measured way: “We need to appreciate and promote the benefits for some children of living overseas with their extended families, rather than being placed in public care in the UK. Distressed parents have called CFAB to see how we can help because this option has not been made available to them. Our charity can obtain assessments of family members overseas at the request of the social worker or the solicitor, and this may reduce the risk of flight and rash decisions taken by parents.”

Developing a good relationship with a family in the assessment stages of any case is vital, she points out, if parents are to trust their social worker sufficiently to raise extended family placements as an option for their child.

The impact on children who are abducted will vary greatly depending on their age, where they are taken, for how long, and how they are treated. Once a child has been recovered, social services will have to calibrate its response according to each individual situation.

However, even when a parent has abducted a child once, it doesn’t necessarily mean denying future contact – punishing the child is not the point.

“But contact would need to be very clearly supervised and controlled,” James says, “and then you’d constantly monitor that”. He also points out that social workers would then need to make a decision if the parents should be told where a child is going to be placed.

“One always tries to take a level and proportional approach to these things,” he says, “but if there’s a breach of trust and what a parent may or may not do is unpredictable, you may have to protect that information because you believe the child is at significant risk.”

Assessing flight risk

● Are parents willing to work with you and keen to build a trusting relationship? If they are resistant to social work approaches and defensive or aggressive in their attitude, then this should feed into your assessment of abduction risk.

● Is there a previous history of the parents moving around a great deal? If so, there is a particular need to be aware that this pattern may be repeated if they come under stress.

● Do the parents have extended family elsewhere in the UK or overseas? If so, it is more likely that they will remove their children from where they currently live.

● Any initial assessment should include the creation of a “genogram” detailing extended family members and their locations.

Additional resources

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: 020 7008 1500

Children and Families Across Borders: This charity has links with local authorities in 120 countries across the world and expertise in international and national legislation affecting the rights of minors and their families. It also offers free training to professionals working with families who may have families overseas. Advice line 020 7735 8941,

Karma Nirvana: Derby-based national charity that can advise local authorities and schools in cases of threatened or actual child abduction for the purposes of forced marriage. 01332 347315

Association of Lawyers for Children: This organisation’s members promote justice for children and young people in England and Wales.

This article is published in the 17 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Call international rescue

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