Four Year Old Abducted by Mother in Custody Fight

Has anyone seen Fidel Oberon Sweeney?  He’s four years old and, until last October, was living in Sydney, Australia.  Now no one, except presumably his mother Alice Jopson, knows where he is.  The family court doesn’t know and neither do the police.  Most importantly, Fidel’s dad Patrick Sweeney doesn’t know where his son is.  Read about it here (Sydney Morning Herald, 4/3/11).

As you may have guessed, that’s because his ex, apparently afraid Patrick was about to get custody of his son, failed to show up in court with the boy.  She hasn’t been seen since.

The Federal Magistrates Court is now issuing a plea for the boy’s return.

The key word in that sentence of course is ‘now.’  Jopson failed to comply with the judge’s order to bring the boy, whose nickname is ‘Obi,’ to court last October 11.  So you may ask why the Magistrate’s Court is just now getting around to issuing a recovery order authorizing the police to locate Obi and return him to his dad.

I can’t answer that one.  After all, more than five months elapsed between Jopson’s abduction of the child and the court’s decision to try to do something about it.  That seems strange to me.

Whatever the reason for the delay, Obi’s court-appointed guardian, independent children’s lawyer Donna Smith, is upset about his welfare.

”A life on the run is not a life for him to lead. He should have a life where he has no cares at all. We don’t know where either she or he is, and that is a great concern to us.”

Smith touches on what I’ve written countless times – that child abduction is itself a form of child abuse.  Lengthy treatises have been written on the topic by psychologists who rightly point out that, when a child is abducted, he/she loses everything familiar including friends, relatives, home, school, teachers and, of course, the non-abducting parent.  That all adds up to a huge amount of confusion and stress for, in this case, a four-year-old.

Into the bargain, a parent who abducts a child to keep it from the other parent aren’t exactly prize psychological specimens.  They tend towards narcissism which places additional burdens on the child to exist solely for the parent and to meet the needs of a very needy adult.

Just how a four-year-old boy copes with such a situation I don’t know, but, as the literature on the subject makes clear, the experience can be scarring.  The emotional/psychological damage can last a lifetime.

So Ms. Smith has every right to be concerned for Obi’s welfare.

During the entirety of the custody battle, Patrick Sweeney, who’s Irish and a mechanical engineer, has been a model citizen in court.  He’s also spent $100,000 in the process.  From what Smith says, that may be in part because he thought he would win.  She says he’s always been “keen for the court process to take place.”

That suggests an optimism about the likely outcome that Jopson obviously doesn’t share.

This case will be worth following.  It’s interesting in its own right, but also, because of the proposed changes to Australian family law that are likely to be enacted soon. 

Sweeney’s custody case began under the Family Law Act as amended under the Howard government in 2006.  That law called for greater shared parenting between dads and moms and required that each promote a healthy relationship between the child and the other parent.

If the new amendments pass – and there seems every likelihood that they will – the so-called ‘friendly parent’ provision will probably be part of the new law.  Clearly Jopson has violated her legal obligation to promote a good relationship between Sweeney and his son.

But the new law (at least as proposed) also includes some extremely loose language about what constitutes domestic violence, how a person proves it in court and what the consequences of false accusations are.  Even the shakiest claims of DV by a mother may be sufficient to lose a dad custody of his child.

Fathers’ rights organizations have levelled scathing criticism at the proposals saying that they open the door to fathers losing their children based on unsubstantiated allegations of ‘violence’ which may be nothing more than discomfiting remarks.

Assuming Jopson is found and returned to court, will she avail herself of the new law (if it passes) by falsely claiming some form of “violence” on Sweeney’s part?  Of course she may have already done so, and the court may have ruled it unproven or ineffective to deprive Sweeney of his parental rights.

But, in the time it takes to locate, her, the law may well have changed.  It’ll be interesting to see what effect, if any, that has on which parent gets custody of Obi.  Jopson has proven herself, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be abusive and that should be the end of it.

We’ll see if it is.  But if it’s not, this case will be the canary in the coal mine for fathers’ rights in Australia.

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