When parents abduct:
Q&A with Rhonda Morgan of the Missing Children Society of Canada
Last Updated Jan. 17, 2007
More than 350 Canadian children are abducted each year by a non-custodial parent. But few of those cases receive as much media attention as the one involving two tiny Calgary girls — Cedar Hawach, three, and her sister Hanna, six — who are currently in hiding somewhere in Lebanon.
The children were spirited there during the summer of 2006 by their father, Joseph, an Australian restaurateur of Lebanese extraction. They were then snatched back by their custodial mother, Melissa, in a daring pre-Christmas counter-abduction. It's alleged she had the help of at least four so-called mercenaries, two of whom (an Australian and a New Zealander) are currently in a jail north of Beirut.
Rhonda Morgan, founder and executive director Missing Children Society of Canada, says about 90 per cent of parental abductions in Canada have some kind of foreign component.
In the initial stages of this dispute — indeed right up to shortly before the two girls were re-abducted — Melissa Hawach had the assistance of the Missing Children Society of Canada, a Calgary-based organization that works with police and other investigators to help find missing or abducted children all over the world.
Founded in 1986 by Rhonda Morgan, MCSC is unique in that it has a staff of four investigators (retired police officers) and two case workers who conduct full-scale investigations on their own when circumstances warrant.
But the organization does not support abducting children even on behalf of the parent with legal custody: The practice is legally questionable and too traumatic on the children involved, says Morgan. The executive director of the association, she spoke to CBC.ca from Calgary.
How common is it for non-custodial parents to abduct their children?
Parental abduction is the most common type of abduction in Canada. We have somewhere in the order of 66,000 children who go missing in Canada each year but most of these are runaways who are gone for a very short period of time.
In the case of parents abducting their children, there are between 350 and 400 cases a year, at least that we know about.
Is one parent more likely than another to be an abductor?
A few years ago, it was mothers who were the most frequent abductors. Today, it is more like 50-50.
The other thing that has changed is that today about 90 per cent of parental abductions have some kind of foreign component.
In many cases, the families are from Middle Eastern countries, countries that have not been signatories to the Hague Convention [on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction].
The Hawach case was, of course, one of those and it caught the world's attention because of the use of so-called mercenaries, former soldiers who allegedly helped re-abduct the two children. How common is that?
I don't think that's common at all. We had one such agency make contact with us about 19 years ago and I became aware more recently of another group operating in Texas. But I'm not aware of too many cases at all where outside groups like this were brought in to assist.
Apparently there are groups out there who make a living doing this. That was the case of the group that approached us many years ago. They wanted to see if we could use their services. And we don't condone re-abduction so we had no need for that.
Why are you against re-abduction, especially if the parent involved has clear legal custody?
First of all, it puts the children at risk both physically and, in every case, psychologically. If you can imagine some poor child being torn off the street by some strange man, somebody that child doesn't know. It would have tremendous effect on these kids.
We don't condone that at all. Plus, you're getting potentially into breaking the laws in the countries you're forced to do that in. If you're in a position where you have to hire these kinds of people, chances are you haven't been successful in the legal system or you weren't willing to go through it in the first place.
How are mercenaries like this, if that is what they are, found?
They come forward themselves once they hear of stories like this in the media. I believe that's what happened in this case.
I believe that when Melissa was in Australia and she asked for the help of the media in Australia, I believe that was when she was approached by somebody. She didn't go looking for them.
I know that because her intention right up until the time we went over with her to Lebanon was not to re-abduct her kids. It was to go through the legal system.
It was when everybody else was returning home for the holidays and she was going to have to leave her kids again, that she made up her mind to do something.
Why I believe she was approached is because when we have a case like this, we get all kinds of e-mails here saying 'If you need help, we're here.' It could be anything from donations to going in and taking kids back.
Those groups that do charge for this kind of service, presumably that can be very costly?
Oh yes. I have heard that they can cost anywhere from $50,000 and up. But honestly I don't know for sure.
Parents don't pay for our services. They are all free of charge, paid for by donations. But we don't get involved in any kind of plan or activity that would have the children re-abducted like in this case.
Although we were very involved in this case, at the point of time when Melissa decided she had no other option but to approach the children, that was the end of our involvement with her, until she's back again.
We didn't pay for any part of that or plan any part of it or find these so-called mercenaries for her.
How involved were you in the Hawach case?
We were very involved. First of all, we had a lengthy meeting with Melissa and her family and then we were involved in interviewing the associates, family and friends of Joe, including his family in Australia.
We actually were trying to mediate a resolution with the family in Australia, trying to get them to work with Joe as we worked with Melissa to try to find some agreed-upon common ground.
Our investigator then met her in Lebanon on the 15th of December [six days before the children were taken from their father]. She had been told by [Canadian] Foreign Affairs and her lawyers that what she need to do was take her Canadian custody order and have it registered in the courts of Lebanon. That's what they went over to do.
Around the 20th, it became very clear that the advice she had received simply wasn't the case. She was being told by the authorities in Lebanon that it would take anywhere up to two years to go through the courts there.
Are you still involved in the Hawach case, given all that's occurred?
We've taken a step back. There's nothing we can do at this point in time until she is back here and we know where everything stands.
Once she's back and if she has the children we will likely be involved in helping her and the kids get some counselling. They're going to need help to get back on track and deal with what's happened over the course of a year.