LONDON - A security expert who specializes in the safe recovery of children abducted in cross-border custody disputes is skeptical about whether Japan will ever shake its reputation as the “black hole of international parental child abduction.”
Adam Whittington heads a team of former special forces and police personnel who are dispatched around the world to recover children who have been wrongly removed from their home country by one of their parents.
In 16 years his company has retrieved about 150 children and returned them to at least 50 different countries, including Japan.
His firm receives many calls from parents desperate to get their kids back — despite the existence of a global agreement that should facilitate the process.
The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, which Japan signed in 2013 and formally joined in April 2014, ostensibly ensures that children are promptly returned to their country of “habitual residence” if taken to another country by one of their parents.
The cases typically involve couples in failed international relationships where one parent unilaterally takes the child back to his or her native country.
But Whittington, 39, who heads Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI), says the convention has many deficiencies, and that many abducted children all over the world are not returned due to lax enforcement by local authorities.
His company gets many requests for assistance, particularly from Western fathers seeking to retrieve their children from Asian countries, including Japan.
CARI will only agree to act for a client, however, if it’s clear the overseas court has ruled in their favor and ordered that the child be returned under the convention to his or her country of habitual residence.
In that event, a team is dispatched to the country in question to locate the abducting parent and child.
The next stage is a surveillance operation to ascertain a “safe and fast opportunity” for the client parent to take the child with the team’s assistance, Whittington said.
In the past, he has worked for the British police and the Australian army, and in 2000 he assisted the family of British woman Lucie Blackman, who went missing in Japan. Her mutilated body was later found and a Japanese man is currently serving time in prison for that and other crimes.
Prior to Japan joining the convention, Whittington said the country was known as the “black hole of child abduction” because Japanese courts would invariably side with the Japanese national — usually a mother — and order that the child remain in Japan.
While there have been returns of children under the convention from Japan, Whittington remains skeptical.
Speaking from his home in Sweden, he told Kyodo News: “We hope Japan sees the light and comes out of the Dark Ages, because it has had a bad reputation when it comes to international child abduction. There have been some returns, which is great, and I hope they stick to it.
“It’s down to the individual judges, and many of them are not experienced in international child abduction.”
But even if the left-behind parent is granted a return by a judicial or administrative authority, it can often “mean nothing,” as the abducting parent will find ways of getting around the system, Whittington said.
“Many of the fathers know they are going to have a massive battle on their hands. The convention needs to be rewritten for 2015. The percentage of return rates, from our experience, is about 3 percent, which is shocking,” he said.
“Many of the abducting parents go on the run once a decision has been made (that) the child should be returned. Their lawyers tell them to go and hide for 12 months — sometimes in another country — because after that period it is easier to persuade a judge that this (new) country is the child’s habitual residence.”
Whittington said about 50 percent of his cases involve tracking down parents who have deliberately “disappeared” following a Hague ruling against them.
One of his current cases involves tracking down a Japanese mother who has “deliberately disappeared,” and he noted there are several Japanese websites that instruct mothers on how to exploit the convention in this way.
Whittington said deliberate disappearance “is happening everywhere. Enforcing (the Hague convention) is by far the biggest problem, and this is why we are so busy.
“The right of return (under the treaty) is just a piece of paper, and the (left-behind) parent can’t just take it to the police and get it sorted, and this is why we get involved.”
So far, Whittington has not been called upon to enforce a Hague order in Japan, but in 2013 he assisted an Italian man in retrieving his 4-year-old son from his Japanese mother after being granted full custody in Japanese courts.
About 95 percent of his work is enforcing Hague orders, although occasionally Whittington will act in a non-Hague country — and without legal backing — if he is convinced there is a moral case for removing the child due to a threat of abuse, for example.
While some people may feel that removing a child in this way is disruptive and harmful, Whittington defends his actions.
“I do it because there is no one else to help these children and they are in the middle of a battle between two parents,” he said.
“Often, these children are not leading normal lives. These kids don’t go to school or to the doctor’s because they are on the run. They live like fugitives. They don’t go and play on the streets, because they know the police are trying to find them.”