2021-10-10 11:00:11 In China, Abducting Children in a Bid to Gain Custody

In China, Abducting Children in a Bid to Gain Custody

Wang Jianna was wrestled to the ground by the men and women. They yanked her 6-month-old baby from her arms and fled, holding her legs and shoulders down.

Everything was captured on video by a surveillance camera. But Ms. Wang had little choice: the man leading the abduction on the street outside her mother’s house was her partner, the baby’s father.

According to Ms. Wang, the police in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin refused to get involved, claiming that it was impossible for a parent to abduct his own child. The court then granted Ms. Wang’s partner sole custody, citing the need to keep the baby in “familiar surroundings.”

Ms. Wang saw her daughter for the last time that afternoon in January 2017.

“I feel deeply wronged,” Ms. Wang, 36, said. “Despite the fact that snatching is unreasonable and unjustified, the court upheld it.”

Custody battles can be acrimonious no matter where you are in the world. Disputes over children are especially vexing in China, where courts rarely grant joint physical custody. Judges frequently keep children in their current living situation, claiming that it is best for their well-being. However, it creates a perverse incentive for divorcing parents to abduct and hide their children in order to gain sole custody.

According to a copy of the report obtained by The New York Times, nine months after Ms. Wang’s child was abducted, Tianjin police acknowledged in a final report that her partner, Liu Zhongmin, had injured Ms. Wang and her mother during a “physical dispute over a child.” Mr. Liu was ordered by the police to serve a 10-day administrative detention and pay a $75 fine for causing bodily harm. However, the officers did not hold him responsible for taking the child.

Wang Jianna and her daughter Jiayi in January 2017.

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Jianna Wang

Mr. Liu was unable to be reached for comment. When asked for comment, his lawyer and one of the people accused of kidnapping the child hung up the phone.

For decades, it was not a crime for parents to kidnap and hide their own children under Chinese law. As the divorce rate in the country has steadily increased, the problem has become more widespread. The majority of divorces in China are settled privately, which can result in custody agreements. However, for couples who go to court, it is frequently all or nothing.

In June, the government attempted to address the issue by making abductions for the purpose of obtaining custody illegal. Activists applauded the law, but said it was too soon to tell if it would make a difference.

According to a recent report by Zhang Jing, a prominent family lawyer in Beijing, citing figures released by China’s highest court, an estimated 80,000 children were abducted and hidden for custody purposes in 2019.

Many believe the figures are likely to be higher. In 2019, a long-serving judge in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou told state media that more than half of the contested divorce cases she had seen involved the kidnapping of a child for custody purposes.

The majority of kidnappings are committed by fathers. Ms. Zhang discovered that men were responsible for more than 60% of such cases. The majority of the abductions involved sons under the age of six, reflecting China’s traditional emphasis on boys as bearers of the family name.

“It’s almost like a game — whoever has physical custody has legal custody,” said Dai Xiaolei, who founded the grassroots advocacy group Purple Ribbon Mother’s Love after losing a custody battle with her ex-husband. “It’s a wild goose chase.”

In some cases, kidnapping children in order to gain custody is part of a larger pattern of domestic violence. Domestic violence affects approximately one in every three families, according to official statistics.

Ms. Wang stated that the abuse began in 2016, when she was about five months pregnant with her daughter, Jiayi. She and Mr. Liu were living together, but their marriage had never been legally registered. Mr. Liu allegedly beat Ms. Wang again one month after she gave birth after she asked him to get some diapers.

According to court documents, Ms. Wang told a judge that Mr. Liu frequently quarreled with her “over trivial matters, even beating and insulting her.” According to the documents, Mr. Liu denied Ms. Wang’s request for custody but did not address her specific claims.

The beatings continued for months, according to Ms. Wang, until she was unable to bear them any longer. Her in-laws took her and her baby to stay with her parents at her request, she explained. Mr. Liu arrived once to try to seize the child, but left when the police arrived, according to Ms. Wang. She didn’t hear from him for the next month.

She claimed that the next time he ordered people to assist him in snatching the baby. According to court documents, Ms. Wang filed an appeal after a judge granted him full custody, but the judge upheld the arrangement.

Custody disputes have only recently become a major issue in China. Historically, a woman seeking a divorce was expected to give up custody of her children. However, as women in China have gained more financial stability and independence, this has changed.

On paper, Chinese law favors women slightly more than men. When the child is under the age of two, the mother is usually granted sole custody. In practice, however, judges can be swayed by institutional and informal considerations that, according to experts, frequently give men an advantage. Men, for example, have more financial resources and property, allowing them to make a stronger custody claim.

“The law appears to be very neutral, but many things behind it are not equal,” He Xin, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, explained. “Women frequently lose out.”

Jiayi, after her kidnapping, in a photo provided to a court by her father during a trial last year.

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Jianna Wang

When Cindy Huang first considered divorce in 2014, lawyers advised her to take her child and hide him first.

Ms. Huang declined, believing that there was no need to take drastic measures to protect her right to parent her own child. Her husband, however, took their son not long after she filed for divorce, she claimed. While the judge was sympathetic, she recalled him telling Ms. Huang in an interview that there was little he could do.

“The judge said very clearly to me, ‘There is no way for us to take your child back from his father, so we cannot give you custody,'” Ms. Huang, 43, said.

Ms. Huang has been allowed to see her son twice a month in a cafe, under the supervision of her ex-husband, after an unsuccessful appeal in 2016. Ms. Huang stated that she wished she had listened to the lawyers’ advice.

“I thought to myself, ‘How could the law award custody to the parent who snatched the child first?'” she said. “I was a knucklehead.”

Soon after Ms. Wang’s ex-partner abducted their daughter, he severed all contact. Ms. Wang persuaded a court last year to order him to turn over photos of their daughter. They depict a toddler with pigtails and a plethora of colorful toys. The child’s face, however, is obscured — a strategy, Ms. Wang believes, devised by her ex-partner to prevent her from recognizing and reclaiming their daughter one day.

She still fantasizes about reuniting with the baby she once rocked to sleep every night, four years later.

“If I’m not saving her in my dreams, I’m chasing her,” Ms. Wang explained. “However, her face is blank — I have no idea what she looks like.”

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In China, Abducting Children in a Bid to Gain Custody