Taking children abroad post-divorce
It is becoming increasingly common for couples to marry across borders. International travel is more accessible and over the past decade there has been an influx of immigration into South Africa, resulting in more marriages between partners of different nationalities. Inevitably, some of these marriages will end in divorce. Equally predictably, some parents will want to return to their country of birth with the children of the marriage…in other words they will seek international child custody.
In this post we will look at 1) how you can do that legally and 2) what to do if the other parent has removed your child to another country without your consent.
International child custody: What the law says – the Children’s Act 2005
South African law does not explicitly govern international child custody, and relocation with children post-divorce. All matters concerning children are legislated by the Children’s Act 2005. This progressive piece of legislation takes the focus away from the rights of the parents and places the child at the heart of all decisions. “In all matters concerning the care, protection and well-being of a child the standard that the child’s best interest is of paramount importance must be applied” (Section 9). The Children’s Act does not directly mention the relocation of one parent or the other, nor does it legislate consent procedures. However, Section 18 stipulates that consent of both parents is needed if one or other wants to emigrate with the child(ren).
The wellbeing of the child extends beyond simple contact with each parent. In some cases the move might be in the child’s best interests. For example, if one parent has an employment opportunity overseas that will significantly enhance the quality of life or environment the child experiences, that situation may be considered as good for the child as remaining near the non-custodial parent. South African law has tended to decide international child custody matters on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, the views of the children will be considered, though not necessarily accommodated.
While relocating with a child is not as difficult as you might think, it is still a situation that needs to be handled carefully and with due consideration for the law. Failure to follow the correct procedures could have unwelcome consequences down the line. Furthermore, once a child is settled in an environment, even a foreign one, courts are usually reluctant to disrupt the child’s wellbeing by reversing an earlier decision. So if you are considering moving abroad with your child, or if your child’s other parent is relocating with your consent, it is a good idea to take legal advice regarding international child custody. Cape Town family law firm SD Law will ensure your conduct complies with the Children’s Act, in letter and in spirit. We will look after the interests of the child while at the same time respecting your wishes and those of the other parent.
International child abduction
International child abduction is a much more serious matter and is increasingly common globally, as air travel becomes more affordable. The abducting parent may not think of themselves as such or even realise that their behaviour is classed as abduction.
International child abduction is monitored (note – not governed; it is not a piece of legislation) by the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (“the Hague Convention”). The Hague Convention is an international treaty designed to prevent the removal of a child from their home jurisdiction by a parent (or other caregiver) without the consent of the other parent. It also aims to return a child thus illegally removed to their home country. South Africa has been a signatory to the Hague Convention since 1 October 1997 (ratified in 1996).
The Hague Convention defines the removal of a child as improper if it breaches the custody right of anyone based on the laws of the nation where the child was resident prior to their removal. Where two parents have shared (equal) care of a child (i.e. custody), both parents must give consent for a child to be removed, as also required by Section 18 of the Children’s Act. When there is a dispute about a child’s care between countries that are both signatories of the Hague Convention, the courts of the destination country are responsible for returning the child, if appropriate, i.e. unless there is a risk of a human rights violation such as female genital mutilation, and as quickly as possible. Under the Hague Convention, the return should be effected within six weeks.
International child abduction: The Hague Convention in Africa
Unfortunately, only South Africa, Mauritius and Zambia are signatories to the Hague Convention on the African continent. This can make the return of the child more complex, and naturally many marriages in South Africa are between nationals of African countries. Therefore the Hague Convention does not apply. The Convention only applies to wrongful removals that occur after the treaty comes into effect between two countries.
The return of a child, whether from a Hague Convention signatory country or other, is a matter for the Central Authority in South Africa (the Family Advocate’s Office). You can approach the Central Authority on your own behalf, but it is strongly advised to use the services of capable family law attorneys to lodge an application to court. The Central Authority can be overwhelmed with child abduction applications and a good divorce lawyer, with deep knowledge of child law, can navigate the pathway more expediently than a private individual. The Central Authority will oversee the process. Your legal representative will seek to:
- Discover the location of the child
- Secure the voluntary return of the child if possible, or initiate legal proceedings
Dealing with a foreign court
With luck, and in most cases, the Central Authority and/or your divorce attorney will be able to locate your child and negotiate their return without involving foreign courts. However, if the matter does go to court, there are factors beyond legislation to bear in mind. Has your child been taken to a jurisdiction where cultural or religious beliefs are different to ours? Some countries have a tendency to grant sole custody to mothers. Others may lean toward awarding care to fathers. If a girl child is promised in marriage at a young age, traditional cultures may defend this practice and resist returning the child to the home country. While you can’t change entrenched beliefs in another jurisdiction, the more you are aware of the issues that may impact your case and the better prepared your legal advisers, the greater your chances of success.
What you will need
In order to begin the proceedings, for international child custody, that will hopefully result in the return of your child, you need:
- Completed questionnaire in English
- Recent photographs of the child and the parent who abducted them
- Certified copies of birth certificates
- Proof of parental rights, such as court orders concerning care and contact (custody and access) and/or guardianship
- Certified copy of marriage certificate, if relevant
- Last known details of the child and the abducting parent’s possible location
- Sworn translations in English of all relevant documentation in other languages (e.g. marriage certificates)
We’ll support you every step of the way
At Cape Town family lawyers, we know that being separated from your child is traumatic for you and them. We will work tirelessly to effect a speedy reunion with as little distress for all parties as possible.
If you are relocating with the full consent of the other parent, we will help you revise your parenting plan to reflect the changed circumstances and protect the rights and interests of the child and both parents. Excellent legal advice regarding international child custody will ensure the best outcome in either scenario.
Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your case in confidence.