Since the last post on 24 February 2013, there have been a series of developments; indeed, I have received, albeit indirectly, the first news about Hugo since he left the UK in 2011.
I first made contact with the Child Abduction Section at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London in January 2012, shortly after Hugo was taken away. They made it clear from the outset that there was not an awful lot that they could do, all the more as the country concerned was Japan. One option that I did have was to ask them to arrange for a consular visit on Hugo to take place. It was made clear that, in general, only one such visit could take place. Given this and given Hugo’s young age, I decided not to request such a visit right away but rather wait for a period of time.
Almost exactly a year later, there having been no sort of contact, direct or indirect, from my son or anyone in his Japanese family, I decided to ask the Child Abduction Section to try and organise a visit. I gave them the landline number for Hugo’s mother’s parents’ home.
At 4.16 pm on 28 February 2013, the very day that Hugo turned 4 1/4, I received an email from a caseworker at the Child Abduction Section stating that Hugo’s mother had agreed to the visit taking place. On that day, I had been representing a client at a Tribunal centre very near to Heathrow Airport and had to take the underground back into town afterwards from one of the airport terminals. Ironically, I had gone into the terminal to buy something and it was at that time, perhaps only about 100 metres from where I last saw Hugo, that I received the news that a consular visit would take place, the first such news about Hugo for about 14 months.
I emailed the caseworker back with some questions about whether photographs would be taken, what information would be elicited about Hugo and whether the mother’s actions would be challenged. The reply was that photographs could be taken with the mother’s consent, her actions could not be challenged as this is not a matter for civil servants (even though Hugo is half-British and even though the UK has obligations in international law as regards the best interests of children) and, in terms of the information-gathering exercise, the following information was provided in the reply:
Remit of the Visit
Consular officers are not able to assess a child’s language skills. Nor are they able to conduct a ‘welfare assessment’ of a child. We are not trained social workers/welfare workers. The main objective of the consular visit is to check on the child’s general well-being. What consular officers will look at in general terms is:
· The appearance of Hugo (does he look healthy; clean; appropriately dressed for the climate; does he talk unprompted; is he registered with a local doctor & dentist)
· Hugo’s home environment – if the visit is at the family home (is it comfortable, clean; evidence of toys/books)
· Some social/general areas ( favourite TV programmes; friends; who looks after him during the day)
I’m not sure if the consular officers who will conduct the visit have undertaken Consular Visits before. However, they will be acting under firm guidance on how to conduct the visit and will have received a written briefing from me on the physical handling of it. Please bear in mind that the visit is to check on Hugo’s general well-being. We cannot conduct professional assessments so officers will apply our guidance and common sense.
A further email, received this week, indicated that Hugo’s mother would not agree to the taking of photographs. I emailed the caseworker back and asked whether this request could be made again at the actual meeting and he said that it could be. Her refusal to consent to the taking of photographs brought home the absurdity of the situation: that she and her family can see Hugo all of the time, that two consular officers can see him but that my family and I cannot even see a photograph of him. In my email back to the caseworker following the news that a visit would take place, I had pointed out that some people in my family are old – my father will be 85 this year and two members of my family have died since Hugo left the UK (one just a week ago) – and could not travel to Japan even if there was the opportunity for them to see Hugo (which there is not). None of this, if communicated on to Hugo’s mother, made any difference. In my latest email, I have had to ask whether she might agree to just one photograph being taken. Failing that, I have asked that the consular staff instead take a photograph of the area where the visit takes place so at least I might be able to see that.
Subject to Hugo being well – he is said to have only just recovered from the flu (again, this is the first news that I have had relating to him specifically) – the visit will take place at a shopping mall in Hiroshima at 10.30 am on Saturday 16th March. Although I have been able to use this indirect contact to try and resolve some practical issues through the Foreign Office and Embassy in Japan – I have received an assurance, for example, that anything I post to Hugo’s grandparents’ address in Hiroshima does get passed on to him – I doubt whether this exercise will produce anything other than a report detailing those matters referred to above. As indicated above, in general, only one such visit can take place. I have not yet asked what, if anything, the Child Abduction Section can do to assist after the visit is concluded, and in what circumstances a further visit could, exceptionally, take place, but will do so and will update this blog about that in due course. Given Hugo’s mother’s position on the photographs, I do not now expect much to be achieved by this visit other than a reassurance that Hugo is safe, well and hopefully happy.