Hague Convention, Domestic Violence, and Rights of Custody

Questions arise about a parent’s right of custody in every international custody case, especially Hague Convention child abduction cases. A Colorado district court recently had to make the tough call whether a parent lost his rights of custody after a domestic violence injunction was put in place against him.

Hague Rights of Custody

Rocky Mountain High

In February 2015, an Australian citizen and a United States citizen married in Las Vegas. They lived in the U.S. for the next two years before traveling to Australia with their three-month-old son – who was born in Australia. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, taking numerous trips, moving frequently between rental properties, staying occasionally with family and friends, and camping in a trailer and tent.

In April 2021, while staying at an Airbnb, the parents had an argument which resulted in the Father being escorted to the police station. By the time he returned to the Airbnb, the Mother had left. The Mother had also obtained a temporary protection order against the father based on allegations of domestic violence.

The domestic violence protection order provided the Father:

must not approach to within 100 metres of where [Mother or the children] live[ ], work[ ] or frequent[ ]—except for the purposes of having contact with children but only as set out in writing between the parties or in compliance with an order under the Family Law Act or when contact with a child is authorised by a representative of the Department of Communities (Child Safety).

The order also provides that Father “must not contact or attempt to contact or arrange for someone else (other than a lawyer) to contact” Respondent or the children . . . and “must not follow or remain or approach to within 100 metres” of Mother or the children. The order was subsequently made permanent for a period of five years.

In May 2021, the Mother and the children came to the United States, and they have lived in Colorado ever since. The Father filed an action seeking return of the children under the Hague Convention and in breach of his custody rights under Australian law.

International Child Custody and the Hague Convention

I have written and spoken on international custody and child abduction under the Hague Convention. The Convention’s mission is basic: to return children to the State of their habitual residence to require any custody disputes to be resolved in that country, and to discourage parents from taking matters into their own hands by abducting a child.

The removal or the retention of a child is to be considered wrongful where it is in breach of rights of custody under the law of the State in which the child was habitually resident immediately before the removal or retention; and at the time of removal or retention those rights were actually exercised, either jointly or alone, or would have been so exercised but for the removal or retention.

Rights of custody can arise by operation of law or by reason of a judicial or administrative decision, or by reason of an agreement having legal effect under the law of that State. Rights of custody include rights relating to the care of the person of the child and, in particular, the right to determine the child’s place of residence.

Slippery Slope

The Colorado judge found that the Father failed to show what custody rights, if any, he retained under the Australian Family Law Act. After the domestic violence injunction was made permanent for five years, the Father had the burden to prove what his rights of custody were after the injunction — a prerequisite to establishing that his children’s removal was in breach of his rights of custody.

The Father gave no evidence or testimony on the matter and the Court did not want to assume what remaining rights he had after the order and whether they were substantial enough that  removal of the children breached his rights.

Not every court has held that the entry of a domestic violence injunction meant the loss of rights of custody under the Hague Convention. In a Maryland case, a court found that a domestic violence injunction was aimed at protecting the safety of the Mother, rather than rescinding parental rights of the Father. Accordingly, the domestic violence injunction was not found to be the equivalent of an order rescinding parental rights.

The case is available here.

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