Lady Catherine Meyer: A Mother’s Struggle
Catherine Meyer is the mother of two sons who were abducted to Germany by her estranged ex-husband. Catherine Meyer decided several years ago to use her tragic experience to help others in a similar predicament. In 1999, she co-founded ICMEC, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of parental child abduction as an issue which requires international attention, and to promote new legislation and better laws to protect children.
Child abduction is a parent’s worst nightmare. Losing a child for a few minutes on an outing is frightening enough – but imagine returning home where all your children’s possessions remain, but they are gone.
Your world collapses. The pain is joined by panic. Emotionally traumatized, parents have to cope with daunting obstacles–finding help, dealing with unfamiliar legal systems, bearing the financial costs of pursuing justice. And they are often misunderstood. Instead of sympathy, they are often faced with disbelieving questions. And the pain never goes away, because the wound cannot be healed.
I have lived this pain for six and a half years. On July 6 1994, I sent Alexander and Constantin, aged 7 and 9, to spend the summer with their father in Germany. They never returned to London. In defiance of our custody agreement, my estranged husband kept the boys and disappeared. For weeks I had no idea where they were. Very soon I found that neither the police nor the authorities could help me. There was nothing I could do.
Despite initial court decisions in my favor, and the pleas of American, British and French officials, I have been unable to get my sons back. Worse still, I have hardly been able to even see my two sons. I have met Alexander and Constantin for a total of only 24 hours in over six years.
But if this has been a nightmare for me, imagine what it is like for a child. All children find it difficult to cope with divorce. Children are not only hurt and disappointed, they often feel guilty, believing that they are the source of the family breakdown. When a separation leads to abduction, the trauma is that much more severe. Not only do children experience the breakdown of their family, they find themselves wrenched from a loved parent only to realize there is a war between the people they need and love most.
A common thread in many cases of child abduction is the sustained, vengeful effort of the abductor to deprive the other parent of contact with the child. The abductor may be bitter and angry or feel betrayed. Initially, there can be justifiable reasons for these feelings of bitterness. But when these feelings grow into obsessive hatred, child stealing easily occurs. The abductor will enmesh the child in his or her personal feelings of anger against the other parent, and the child can hardly combat this process.
The abducting parent has run away with the child because he or she wants nothing to do with the other parent and cannot accept the idea of common parenthood. The aim is to flee one jurisdiction in order to reverse custody decisions and destroy the other parent’s relationship with the child. The child becomes a tool for revenge against the other parent.
In custody hearings if and when the child is found, it becomes of paramount importance to the abducting parent that the child says the ‘right thing’ to the judges. The child, traumatised by the loss of one parent, is now in fear of losing the remaining parent. In time, the child replaces positive memories of the absent parent with hurt and anger and blocks out the left behind parent. Then, the child ends up asserting that he/she does not want contact with the other parent.
Commonly, the abducting parent is seen as ‘all good’ and the other as ‘all bad.’ There are no longer the usual mixed feelings. One parent is perfect, while the other parent is a source of contempt, with no positive characteristics. When these children are asked to give compelling reasons for their rejection of the left-behind parent, they are unable to provide them. They may have had strong bonds with the absent parent yet positive memories seem to have evaporated overnight.
These children often deny negative influence from the other parent, who supports this “independence” vociferously. In fact, alienators will typically proclaim that they had nothing to do with this process and the child’s rejection of the left-behind parent is purely a result of their own experiences.
When judges are not aware of this symptom, they can easily decide that it would indeed be in the child’s best interest not to have contact with the left-behind parent. However, when a child is deprived of a healthy relationship with one parent, the perceived rejection becomes internalized and can lead over time to self-loathing and depression, and over time the child learns that hostile behavior and manipulation are a normal part of relationships.
I have met many children who were forcibly separated from one of their parents. I have heard their stories; how they were led by one parent to believe that the other is bad; that they should have nothing to do with them. I have understood how easy it is for this to happen. They had already lost one parent, and for fear of losing the other, they had no choice but to identify with the latter. Yet in spite of all this, some of these children eventually sought contact with the estranged parent. The healing process was hard, often impossible in its entirety. But many were able to establish a new bond, predictably but sadly too often to the detriment of the abductor whose turn it becomes to be seen as the ‘betrayer.’
I think of the day: the day when my sons will be free to reach out and find their way to me, their mother, who had to stand by helpless and watch them grow without her love and attention. It is a day that I dream of constantly. I wait for it with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Will I be able to deal with my sons’ pain? Will they be able to reconcile themselves with the past? But then, love can overcome everything.
Catherine Meyer Founder, Parents of Abducted Children Together http://www.pact-online.org February 11, 2001