The short answer is yes you can go to prison for taking your children to live abroad if you don’t have your ex-partner’s agreement or a Court order. The Daily Mail has reported on the case of a UK mother, Indea Ford, who this week has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison, after being extradited from the States, and standing trial in the UK for taking her two daughters to live in Alaska. Mrs Ford is likely to serve nine months in prison in the UK before being allowed to fly back to the States to return to live with her second husband, two daughters and her toddler child born from her relationship with her second husband.

Court order

On first reading the Indea Ford decision to send a mum of three young children to prison seems really harsh, not only on Mrs Ford but on her children.  A read through the Daily Mail article reveals that Mrs Ford asked her ex-husband for permission to take her two daughters to live in the States and when he refused to agree she applied for a family Court order. All would have been well for her had she been successful in her family Court application but she lost. The family judge decided that Mrs Ford and the children had no prior links to the States and that it was better for the children to stay in the UK. The correct legal option would have been to appeal the decision or wait, build up her legal case, and apply to the family Court again.

Mrs Ford didn’t do that. Instead she breached the family Court order saying that one of her daughter’s passports had been lost or stolen so she could get a replacement passport and leave the UK with her two children. Prior to her departure the children had been seeing their dad but after the move to the USA contact stopped. The criminal proceedings and extradition have resulted in the children losing both their mum and dad as the girls are currently being looked after by their step father in the States and haven’t seen their birth dad.

Criminal proceedings and prison

The criminal trial judge who sentenced the mother to prison time made it clear that he was doing so because Mrs Ford had deliberately breached a family Court order refusing her permission to take the children abroad to live. The family Court document said that Mrs Ford would commit a criminal offence if she disobeyed the family Court order and took the children abroad. Despite the Court warning Mrs Ford went on with her plans to take the children to the States, securing a passport for one of her daughters by lying and saying that the original had been lost or stolen when she knew that the family Court had ordered that each parent keep one daughter’s passport for safekeeping.
Reporting restrictions have prevented anyone on reporting why Mrs Ford felt so driven to breach the family Court order and take her daughters to the States but the media reports that she thought her highly acrimonious split from her ex-husband was damaging to the children. After Mrs Ford has served her prison sentence she will be able to return to the States to her second husband and three children but what about the long term harm of the criminal Court proceedings and maternal separation on the children? What about the potential for the children to find it harder to repair their relationship with their birth dad because of the criminal Court case against their mum and their mother’s prison time?

Applying to Court for permission to take children abroad to live

The case of Mrs Ford shows just how important it is to not only comply with family Court orders but to do all you can to get it right in the first case. How much easier it would have been for the children if Mrs Ford had been able to persuade the family judge to give her permission to take the children to the States.
As a children lawyer , specialising in child abduction and complex children Court cases , I sometimes find that parents question the need for detailed preparation work as they assume they’ll get the Court permission they want without having to detail the background to their separation or research their plans to live abroad. I know just how devastating it can be for a parent to be told ‘’no ‘’ by a Court and preparation is the best chance of getting the order you want.

The best advice is to:
• Chose a specialist children lawyer who can give you an honest opinion on your likely chances of a successful Court application and can tell you how much information and preparation will be required to maximise the chances of success;
• Work with your lawyer – if they tell you that they need information about your relationship it is not salaciousness it is because they need it to help you;
• Research where you want to move to – you should look at houses , jobs , health services , schools and of course how contact would work in relation to your proposals and transport times and costs;
• Consider the timing of any Court application – sometimes an application should be delayed or in other family circumstances it needs to be pushed through, for example so a child will start senior school in the new country rather than join a new school in a new country mid-term;
• If you don’t get the Court decision you want take more legal advice before taking your children abroad.

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