When Tracy Glover’s ex came to collect their daughter for an overnight stay, she waved her little girl off with a see you tomorrow. The next day, a phone call from 1,000 miles away sparked four years of separation, torment and a desperate battle to see her child again. But, bafflingly, the law has other ideas.
A few months ago, in the middle of the pandemic, Tracy Glover’s 12-year-old daughter Ada* felt unsettled, unable to sleep, and frightened by a film she’d seen online – so she rang her mother 1,000 miles away.
‘She asked if we could talk until she felt better,’ says Tracy, ‘so we talked for two hours until Ada began drifting off.’ Every now and then, Ada would break the silence to check, ‘Mum, are you still there?’ until finally, Tracy could hear her daughter’s slow breaths of sleep. ‘And that’s her way of having her mother’s love,’ says Tracy, ‘through her phone.’
In the past year, we’ve all experienced heartbreaking separation from our loved ones. We’ve lived online, connected through screens and held on as reunions have been put back. But Tracy, 46, has lived like this for five years. While Tracy lives in Shipley, West Yorkshire, her daughter Ada, 12, is in the Czech Republic. Ada’s father took her there one night in November 2016 without Tracy’s knowledge or permission.
‘With Covid, it feels like my inner world has become the outer world,’ says Tracy. ‘This isolation, the constantly shifting goalposts, the never knowing when it’s going to change. With Covid, though, we understand why. For me, it’s a form of torture. I’ve no idea when I’ll see my daughter again.’
Tracy’s story shows the true cost of a custody battle when it spans international borders. When she first became involved with Alex*, her ex-partner and Ada’s father, she couldn’t have imagined the pain that lay ahead. ‘At the time, I was 30 and Alex was 26,’ says Tracy. ‘He was strikingly handsome – quite tall, tanned, lovely face. In Shipley, where we met, he stood out like a sore thumb. He seemed to have a chivalrous quality – he was polite, a little bit romantic, he held my hand so gently. He seemed like someone I could trust.’
Alex was from the Czech Republic, working his way around the world having already been to Australia and New Zealand. Tracy was working in a pub and, within six months, Alex had moved into her flat. At 33, just as Tracy was completing her teacher training, she found she was pregnant.
‘It was the right time,’ she says. ‘I finished my training and qualified, but I’d never been a massive career woman and definitely wanted to be a mum. Having my daughter was my dream come true.’
Ada was also Tracy’s first blood relative, which made her arrival even more momentous. ‘I was adopted,’ says Tracy, ‘and like quite a lot of adopted children, I’d grown up with this absence. To have this child who unconditionally loved me exactly as I was – it was wonderful.’
When Ada was just a few months old, Tracy and Alex decided to try life in the Czech Republic. Although he was a qualified land surveyor, Alex had struggled to find steady work in Britain and Tracy was keen for Ada to learn about her heritage. They moved to the village where Alex had grown up and his friends and family still lived.
While Alex slotted back into his former life with a job and a social life, Tracy felt extremely isolated. ‘It really was in the middle of nowhere,’ she remembers. ‘I didn’t speak Czech and I sensed a lot of antipathy towards me as a foreigner. When we’d met, I was a free-spirited British woman, but now I was supposed to live the life of a traditional Czech housewife and it was very limiting,’ she says. ‘Alex didn’t like me going to the pub, he didn’t even like me going to the shop. He would sometimes refuse to give me any money. I was a mother – that was my only role – but I wanted stability for Ada so I shut my mind off and tried to create the environment she needed.’
Ada and Tracy spent all their time together. ‘We formed a really strong bond,’ she says. ‘We did a lot of drawing, painting, playing games. The weather is more extreme there so you get better summers where we could take beautiful walks, or go fruit-picking, and then snow in winter. I’d pull Ada around the village on a sledge.’
As the years passed and Tracy became increasingly unhappy in her relationship, she began to research her parental rights. ‘That’s when I discovered that under the Hague Convention – which governs international child custody cases – a child’s base is considered to be the country where they’ve lived longest. That takes priority over who is the primary carer. I remember reading in horror as it dawned on me that I was living in a prison – Ada and I could never leave without Alex’s consent.’
By the time Ada was seven, Tracy and Alex’s relationship had broken down and Tracy was desperate to return to the UK where they could live as separated parents. ‘I knew the law was completely on Alex’s side, so it meant negotiating with someone who changed like the weather,’ she says. ‘I remember begging him to book the ferry tickets and eventually he did – though he wouldn’t allow me to tell his parents or inform Ada’s school. The car was loaded with all of Ada’s toys, my crockery, my nicest cushions. As far as I knew, we were going for good. On the ferry, as we approached England and I saw the white cliffs of Dover, I cried with relief.’
Back in Shipley, Tracy and Ada were living with Tracy’s mum and Alex was staying with a Czech friend who lived nearby. Tracy had an interview for a teaching position. They’d only been back for about a week when Alex collected eight-year-old Ada for her first overnight stay. She took a little rucksack but nothing else – not even her glasses. ‘I woke the next morning and it was a beautiful sunny day, even though it was November. It felt like the start of our new life,’ says Tracy. ‘I texted Alex but he didn’t text back. When he rang, my stomach started turning. I knew he wouldn’t call me unless something wasn’t right. He told me, “We’re in the Czech Republic”. He’d taken Ada back on a plane. I just felt utter horror. I knew it was going to be virtually impossible to get her back.’
This proved true. In the early months, Tracy hoped Alex would change his mind, but as more time passed she realised he was very unlikely to bring her back. While Tracy has involved UK police and consulted solicitors, Alex has fought his case through the Czech courts in her absence. He has successfully charged her (in Czech law) with being a ‘child abductor’, meaning that if Tracy ever returned to the Czech Republic just to live near her daughter, she risks arrest and imprisonment. Now Tracy has no rights to see her daughter.
Tracy has never forgotten the first time Alex let Ada speak to her on the phone, about five days after their separation. ‘She asked, “Mummy, are you coming too? He told me you were coming!” and she was crying uncontrollably. At that point I was beyond sobbing. I was physically sick with the utter horror.’
For the next 18 months, Tracy only had phone calls with her daughter, which were dependent on Alex agreeing to put Ada on the line. He’d often say she was ‘busy’. In the summer of 2018, he agreed to bring Ada to Shipley and leave her with Tracy for six weeks. ‘We met in the town centre,’ says Tracy. ‘She’d said to me, “Mum, when I see you again, you’ll pick me up and twirl me round!” so that’s what I did. She had freckles, she was slightly different. I’d been worried it would be strange, but as we walked down the street she reached for my hand and very quickly she was my daughter again. When she got to my flat, she said, “I know this, it smells familiar.” I think she could remember the smell of her mother.’
Ada has visited twice more – Christmas 2018 and summer 2019. ‘We do very simple things like we always used to,’ says Tracy. ‘We go on walks, go shopping. She’s fascinated by my make-up and always ends up destroying it! The last time I saw her, she was entering puberty and significantly different. She was beautiful but unaware of it. She’d put her hand over her mouth when she giggled – there was this sweet shyness. I knew I was missing a butterfly emerging.’
While saying goodbye had always been painful, the parting scene at the end of that last visit was extremely traumatic. Ada has always insisted that she wants to live with her mother. ‘When she arrived that summer, she was on her bed, rolling around saying, “My stomach hurts because we’ve got six weeks together then I know I’ll have to leave you. I’ve got this stomach-ache of sadness.”
‘On the morning her father was picking her up, she was saying, “Beg him, Mummy! Beg him to let me stay.” She began to cry and didn’t stop for four hours, hyperventilating. When Alex arrived to take her, she was on the floor – that was almost as bad as the day she was first taken.’
They have not seen one another since. Tracy is entirely dependent on Alex’ cooperation and first he delayed because of financial reasons, or being busy – and now there is Covid.
Ada lives in the same village with her father and his new partner, but has her own phone now so Tracy is in constant contact. ‘I can’t call her every day as it’s too distressing,’ says Tracy, ‘but we message each other all the time. We send pictures all day, pulling stupid faces. She asks for pictures of my home – I’m very girly, I like vintage stuff. She said, “You’ve made everything magical.” She loves music and dancing – we both do.
‘I’ve made friends over the past four years, I have tried dating, there have been times when I’ve been happy, which sounds strange, but you really would die otherwise,’ she says. ‘But I still cry every day for all the things we’ve missed out on. There are still moments when I feel like I can barely breathe without her. Seeing families shopping together. A child holding a parent’s hand. Clothes – I love children’s clothes. Hearing pop music and wondering if she’d like that song. She had her first period without me – she texted and told me and said she knew what to do. She has breasts now. Who’s going to buy her first bra?’
Having been furloughed, last month Tracy returned to her pub job – she found teaching too stressful and demanding to juggle with her commitment to raising awareness of what’s happened to her and her daughter as a result of the Hague Convention. ‘Nearly five years on, there are moments when I wake in the morning and I’ve forgotten what happened,’ she continues. ‘There’s this inner peace, then a massive wave of sheer horror. Or there’ll just be a point in the day when you feel you should check on them or this feeling that there’s something you’ve forgotten. Your body is always a mother, this biological instinct is always there.’
The thought of how this will impact her daughter is harder still. ‘I’m an adult,’ says Tracy, ‘but she’s a child. What happens to us when we’re small lasts a lifetime – and she’s growing up with that wound of separation, just like I did.’
Even when the pandemic is finally over and travel restrictions lifted, Tracy cannot be sure that Alex will bring Ada back for a visit. ‘I look at the future with hope and fear,’ she says. ‘I know my daughter might not get to the UK again for a very long time – but when she does, I do believe that she’ll want to stay. What happens if I follow my daughter’s wishes? Will I be jailed?
‘Sometimes, I’ll plan in my head all the things she could do here. But really I don’t know what the future will hold. Legally, all I can do is wait until Ada is 18 and can make her own choice about where she lives.
‘My daughter once said to me, “We’re surviving, aren’t we, Mummy?” And that’s what we’re doing.’
Why international law can’t help Tracy
- The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction – better known as the Hague Convention – is a piece of legislation introduced by the United Nations in 1980.
- The idea of the law is to prevent child abduction across international borders and to assist parents in getting children who have been kidnapped and taken abroad returned to them.
- However, Article 4 of the convention states that the law applies to ‘any child who was habitually resident in a Contracting State…’ In Ada’s case, her place of habitual residence was considered to be the Czech Republic, a signatory to the convention, and the place where Ada had lived the longest.
- The fact that Tracy was Ada’s primary carer took a back seat to the rule on place of habitual residence.
- Even parents who do have the Hague Convention laws on their side may face legal difficulties in getting a child returned to them. It is down to the signatory countries to enforce the legislation and some do so only sporadically or in line with their own laws and customs.
*Names have been changed.
Interview: Anna Moore. Additional reporting: Anna Pursglove.