Motherhood Across Borders: What does it mean to be a “Hague Mother”?

Motherhood Across Borders: What does it mean to be a “Hague Mother”?

Motherhood Across Borders: What does it mean to be a “Hague Mother”?

By Madalen Bayley, 3rd Year Global Humanitarian Studies student at UCL, London 

How can a treaty created to protect the welfare of children work against itself? It has broken families, put women and children in direct way of harm and blatantly ignored the complexities of domestic violence and abuse. It’s called the Hague Convention.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (HCCA) is an international treaty that was designed to prevent noncustodial parents from “kidnapping” their children and taking them to a foreign country. The treaty was drafted over 40 years ago and, at the time, was mainly targeted at fathers attempting to cross borders with their children without the consent of the mother. As of 2022, 103 countries are party to the treaty and each year over 2,000 parents invoke the HCCA to force the return of their children. While the HCCA operates under the positive guise of returning children back to their custodial parent, in recent years the treaty has seen a turn in its predominant target and has had serious, negative consequences for women escaping domestic violence.

At present, there are no provisions for domestic violence under the terms of the HCCA. In over 70% of cases where the legislation is used, the cases are brought forward by the perpetrators of violence (with support from the state) to return mothers and their children to unsafe environments. While the treaty claims to act in the best interests of the child and their wellbeing, it focuses solely on whether the child was taken across international borders or not – little consideration is given to the circumstances under which the child was removed from their habitual residence. Women’s testimonies are rarely heard despite the fact that choosing to leave an abusive situation is never an easy decision and certainly isn’t one taken lightly. Of 139 women killed by men in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2017, 55% were killed by their ex-partner within the first month of separation and 87% within the first year. These statistics are harrowing but provide important insight into the harsh reality women must consider before choosing to seek refuge – these risks are heightened when children become involved. The wider circumstances are rarely considered in Hague cases and children are often returned to their country of “habitual residence” within 6 weeks. When children are returned, mothers often return with them, and the cycle of abuse continues. Gina Masterton of the QUT Centre for Justice stated “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 of these cases, the HCCA is weaponised and used against mothers as a means of coercive control.

Narkis Golan’s experience as a Hague Mother showcases the real tragedies that can arise from the HCCA. Golan had suffered physical, mental and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, Isacco Saada, for years. Much of the abuse was witnessed by her young son, Bradley. Golan left Italy with Bradley (where they both lived with her abuser), by claiming she was attending her brother’s wedding in her country of origin, the United States. It wasn’t long after Golan and her son had escaped to the USA that Saada filed a petition under the Hague Convention to return Bradley to Italy. While there was no disputing Saada’s abusive behaviour, a New York judge ordered Bradley be returned to Italy if Saada kept to his promise of “staying away from Golan” and “attending therapy for his aggression problems”. However, in June 2022, following the case being elevated to the US Supreme Court, a breakthrough decision determined that Nolan could not be forced to return to Italy with her son where they both faced “grave risk of harm”. Not long after the Supreme Court ruling, Nolan shared the thought, “Why does the system ENABLE such a person to continue to cause my son and I harm through the courts after surviving such abuse. [M]any women end up dead. People call me a survivor.” Sadly, just a month later, in October 2022, Nolan was found dead in her New York home. The circumstances of her untimely death are still under investigation.

The Hague Convention can have fatal consequences for mothers and children escaping domestic violence. To truly act in the best interests of children’s wellbeing, the Hague Convention must strongly consider instances of abuse and the trauma that comes along with fleeing domestic violence with children. The best way we can help create change is through raising awareness and elevating survivors’ stories.

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