What does the law say about parental child abduction?

In 1980 an agreement was made between a number of countries which is called The 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention. More than 100 countries have agreed to follow the rules in this Convention .

If a child is abducted from one country to another, and both countries have signed the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention, a judge will usually order that the child is taken back to where they lived before.

In some special cases the judge might allow the child to stay in the country that they were abducted to. These cases are called ‘exceptions to return’

What are 'Exceptions to Return'?

There are four special reasons or ‘exceptions’ where the child might not be returned to the country they lived in before:

  1. The first exception is more than one year has passed since the child was abducted, and where the child has settled into their new community.
  2. The second exception is where the person (or institution) who had care of the child was not actually exercising rights of custody at the time the child was abducted, or had agreed to the child being taken to or kept in the other country at that time or later.
  3. The third exception is where there is a really serious risk that returning the child will expose them to physical or psychological harm or would make their situation far too difficult to cope with in some other way.

  4. A final really important exception is where the child says they do not want to be returned. The judge will take the child’s views into consideration if they are old enough and show that they understand the situation properly. It is up to the judge to decide whether or not to do what the child asks.

It is important to note that in many countries it is not just the Hague Convention that deals with parental child abduction and there may be different European laws that play a part. As well as this, there are other countries where the 1980 Hague Child Abduction Convention will not apply.

You might have a few more questions

If your parent has taken you overseas, or kept you there, without getting the necessary consent to do so from the other parent or the court, they could get into trouble with the law because this might be a criminal offence in the country where you usually live.

There is no single warning sign to look out for. But big life changes like a parent getting a new job, new home or moving away are times when children can be abducted. Also, if a parent is suddenly looking for your passport or birth certificate, or wishing to take you on holiday alone, this may also be a warning sign.

There are at least 2,700 abductions reported every year to the authorities. There are also a lot of other abductions that are not reported.

If you are a young person and you are worried about someone close to you, the best thing you can do is tell an adult that you trust. This could be someone from your family, someone from school. If you are still worried, you can contact one of the organisations listed in the  ‘information and support’ section of this website.

Depending on the laws of the country from which the abduction occurs, this may be illegal and, as such, will have criminal penalties but, in any event, parental child abduction is wrongful and can hurt and upset many people who are involved in the situation.

Usually, it is best for children and young people like yourselves not to be abducted and, if they have been to be returned promptly to where they lived before. This is called your ‘State of habitual residence. It is also usually best for both parents to be involved in their children’s lives, but that can become difficult when a young person is in a different country from one of their parents.

If you have been taken overseas by a parent, or are not allowed to return from a trip overseas, the first thing that needs to be decided is whether there is any reason that you will not go back to where you lived before and, instead, for you to stay in the new country. If you are going back, then it has to be decided how that will work.

Your parents might be able to make those decisions together but, if they are unable to agree, then people like counsellors, lawyers or mediators can help them and, if an agreement still can’t be reached, then a judge will be asked to make the decision for the family.

Sometimes children are hidden by the parent who took or kept them, and then the authorities in the country they have been taken to, or kept in, will need to find them first so that the decision about them returning, or not, can then be made. 

In some cases, a parent may hide your whereabouts from the rest of your family. If this happens then authorities like the police will need to find you so that the decision can be made about where you might go next. 

If you think that your parent might be hiding you, we would recommend taking a look at our resources.

It is hoped that as a family you can all agree where you will live. When you and your parents cannot agree, someone called a mediator might help your family decide together. If your parents still cannot agree, a judge will have to decide. The 1980 Hague Convention (which we call ‘the Convention’) works between the countries (we call them ‘Contracting States’) which are part of the Convention. The Convention aims for children to return to the country where you lived before (we call this ‘the State of habitual residence’), so the courts there can decide where you should live. The courts in the country where you usually live can get information about your family life more easily than courts in another country and so can better decide what is best for you when your parents cannot agree.

The Exceptions to Return

Although the Convention encourages children to be returned, there are some important situations in which the judge can decide that you would not have to return to the country where you lived before (we call these the ‘exceptions to return’).

The three most important exceptions for you are:

  • You are clear that you do not wish to return, and the judge decides you fully understand how your choice could affect your future.
  • You are at risk of harm if you return.
  • You have become settled in the new country.

See our stories for more information about how these exceptions may apply.

For a detailed description of what ‘exceptions to return’ means please click here

This is so that you can get on with your life where you usually live. It can be hard to make up time which has been lost at school, and it can be very worrying being away from the things you know and miss in your life, such as your friends and other family members. When you are returned to your home country, a judge there can be asked decide if it is best for you to stay there.

When a child is abducted by a parent, they will usually be returned to where they lived before, but there are sometimes exceptions to these rules. If you do not want to return to where you usually live, it is important for you to let the adults know when they are talking to you about what has happened. 

You have a legal right to have your say about what you want, but that does not necessarily mean that you have a right to decide where you live. The judge may decide to do what you want but this depends on whether they think you are old enough and have enough understanding of the situation to make this decision.

It can be quite difficult to change things once the judge has decided that you are to return to where you lived before. It is very important to think carefully and say what you really feel to the adults who are trying to find out what is best for you when they are making the decision about whether you should go back to where you lived before.

Children's Stories Finding Home Liverpool


You can find out more about the different situations and circumstances which may occur in Parental Child Abduction on our Stories page