Children torn between two people, two homelands, two cultures

Six year old Sara Barao is home from Portugal. She arrived as she left - followed at every step by photographers and television crews honing in on a personal tragedy. At four Sara's childhood turned into a nightmare as her Portuguese father and Czech mother broke up and fought a stormy battle over custody rights. When her mother lost the court case two years ago - she and Sara went into hiding. But, at the end of 2006 the authorities caught up with them and Sara underwent the traumatic experience of having her parents physically fight over her in the street. She was taken to Portugal and it seemed that the case was closed. But then came the news that Sara had stopped eating and communicating. Her mother was quickly summoned and it was only then that her parents reached an agreement - opening the way for her to return to the Czech Republic with her mother.

Sara is just one of many children who are caught in the middle of an ugly international custody battle. But more than anyone else her plight has evoked sympathy and opened up questions about the work of Czech institutions in protecting children's rights. The director of the Children at Risk Fund Marie Vodickova says that Czech courts abide strictly by the law in returning a child to the country where it permanently resided without bothering to investigate what kind of environment it will live in, whether it may face abuse and often without any regard to its own wishes.

"What is at the root of the problem is a poor interpretation of the Hague Convention on Children's Rights. Both our courts and the Office for the International Legal Protection of Children which issues recommendations in this respect share the view that children should be returned to their country of residence and courts there should decide about them. They do so without any regard to what conditions the child is being returned to. "

The fact that this is so leads some Czech mothers and fathers who find themselves in this plight to break the law, abduct their child and go into hiding.

"He is too young to say how he is being hurt, he is too young to protect himself - and as a mother it is my duty to do that for him. So that's what I will do - I will continue to protect my child."

Marie VodickovaMarie Vodickova - the words of a young mother who lives in anonymity, on the run after having abducted her child. She has no plans, no goals - except for keeping her child with her. Like others, she no longer trusts the Czech authorities to act in her child's defense. Those whose children have been abducted to a foreign country by their exes are also left helpless because the Brno-based Office for the International Legal Protection of Children cannot represent them in a foreign country. In either case, this kind of life is likely to have a profound effect on the child's further development. Daniel Hughes is a prominent child psychologist:

"If the child is abducted and taken to another country the child will suffer the loss of one parent and if the child had formed an attachment with that parent the child will then experience grief and loss and lack of safety similar to a child whose parent was killed. It may even be worse in the sense that a child can make sense of a parent dying but cannot make sense of being stolen from a parent and that parent not having any ability to have the child returned. So these children are placed at great risk. Traumatized children who do not develop a habitual sense of safety within a family are likely to manifest all sorts of problems as an adult - problems in their behaviour but also in their thinking and basic emotional development."

The dramatic circumstances surrounding these cases has galvanized the Czech authorities into action. Social Affairs Minister Petr Necas says he is not happy with the work of the Office for the International Legal Protection of Children and has asked for a detailed report on its performance. The head of the office Rostislav Zalesky says the office is doing its best to defend children's rights within the boundaries of the law.

"To my mind the courts decide correctly so there is no problem and I must say that a much higher number of children are returned to the Czech Republic as a result of custody rulings than the other way around. According to our statistics since 1998 only ten children were returned to a foreign country after their Czech parent lost the custody case. On the other hand at least 16 children returned to the Czech Republic after their parents won their custody case."

The office says that in cases where a Czech parent has broken the law by abducting their own child to the Czech Republic it cannot do anything but recommend his or her return.

However last week the Supreme Court set an important precedent. Considering an appeal from a young mother who had abducted her two year old daughter from Germany and was living with her in the Czech Republic, the court overturned two earlier rulings by Czech courts - according to which she was to have sent her child back to Germany to live with her father - and asked for the case to be reviewed. This sent an important message to other Czech judges: in future they need not automatically return a child which had been abducted from a foreign country by its parent - not before looking closely into the reasons why it had been abducted, the conditions into which that child would be returned and whether or not such a step could damage its psychological development. Moreover the Supreme Court has recommended that in future all cases relating to the wellbeing of children should automatically be given precedence over others and judges should seriously consider a child's wishes - if that child is old enough to be consulted - something which is rarely done in this country although the law enables it.

All this should ensure that in the future children like six-year-old Sara will not have to go on hunger strike to make their voice heard. But child psychologist Daniel Hughes says that no matter how hard courts in individual countries try to protect children's wellbeing - it is the parents who have the biggest share of responsibility for their children's future.

"Ideally, the parents would agree that this child can safely be exposed to both cultures and the parents will trust each other and make commitments to do what is best for the child -namely to ensure that he or she will have ongoing contact with both parents, the parents will not hate each other and try to prevent contact with the other parent, that the child will be raised safely in both communities, if the child lives in one it can visit the other etc. - in other words that there will be basic agreements on the best way to raise this child. And it may take a great deal of compromise on the part of both parents if their culture and religions are greatly different. This could be very difficult so the parents have to be committed to work very hard to make it happen."