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Courier Mail, Edition 1 - First with the news SAT 06 OCT 2012, Page 048 Little choice in custody

fight despite high emotion By: Mark Solomons The forced return of four girls to Italy shows the difficulty of mixing emotion into the strict rules of the legal world, writes Mark Solomons "Those diplomats in Rome probably thought they were just doing the right thing" YOUNG girls, dragged kicking and screaming on to an international flight, is a b ad look. **Especially when it is to maintain Australia's international standing under a t reaty that is supposed to protect the rights of Australian children. This week's manhandling of young girls by burly blokes in suits fulfilling the n ation's legal obligations by kicking their fellow citizens out of the country ra ised awkward questions about how Australia sometimes treats Australians. But when it emerged yesterday that the Australian Government had been instrument al in granting the four Italian-born girls at the centre of an extended, interna tional custody battle citizenship and helped them come to the country in the fir st place, the quizzical looks became gaping stares. How could all this happen in Australia's name? Australian diplomats helped the girls come to Australia with their mother. Austr alian Federal Police officers, executing a warrant issued by an Australian court , sent them back. And taxpayers footed the bill for the whole exercise, a bill t hat threatened to leap late on Thursday when police considered chartering an air craft to fly the girls out after an Emirates pilot refused to allow the two elde st to remain on board his plane. The previous day, Family Court Judge Colin Forrest, upholding an earlier order t hat the children must be returned to Italy, told a packed courtroom that Austral ian regulations based on the Hague Convention on Child Abduction were designed t o help Australian children stuck overseas in similar circumstances. ``The advantage to Australia of ensuring that children wrongfully brought to thi s country are sent home, is because Australia can then more confidently predict that Australian children wrongfully taken to (another signatory country) will al so be sent home,'' he said. He also said he did not believe the girls would be ``drugged and handcuffed'' on leaving the country. **The Hague Convention is founded on a principle of ``summary'' or prompt return of children wrongfully removed from one country to another, unless there are ex ceptional circumstances.** As it was, the case dragged on for two years as the family filed a series of un successful appeals, including to the High Court. The mother's family yesterday claimed the Family Court had refused to accept evi dence that showed her ex-husband had granted consent for the girls' permanent mo ve and that he had been looking for work in Australia. **Judge Forrest was unequivocal that he would have ruled the children be removed even if he had had further discretion in the matter. Could it be that everyone else in authority has just been following orders? Yes it could.

The AFP and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade both said this week they had been acting within the law and their respective operational guidelines. In 2010, Australian diplomats who organised passports for the girls - and helped them and their mother evade their father as they escaped from what the mother h as persistently alleged was an abusive relationship with him - had been followin g protocol, DFAT said. And when armed federal agents wrestled with children who had not been accused of any crime, shouting ``you're under arrest'', that too was just business as usua l. The AFP said it had ``no discretion when it comes to complying with orders made by the Family Court'' and was ``obliged to return the child/children to the rele vant parent as ordered by the court''. The AFP was unable to tell The Courier-Mail whether officers receive training in restraining minors. ``The use of force by AFP members is governed by the Commissioner's Orders. Thes e orders are based on the principles of minimal force, reasonableness and propor tionality,'' the AFP said. A person familiar with the AFP operation told The Courier-Mail that ``family law matters are difficult and sensitive for everybody''. The term ``arrest'' was used because the children would not have understood the niceties of recovery orders, the source said. Back in Italy, it wasn't exactly a standard ``consular emergency'', as official jargon has it, that eventually led to the girls' arrival in Brisbane on June 25, 2010. Because this one went on and on. *The girls' mother first sought help from the Australian Consulate in Florence i n May 2007. Documents show diplomats told Canberra she had claimed her husband had been abus ive to her for the previous two to three years and had cut off her financial sup port. Diplomatic cables describe regular contact, including weekly transmissions for s ome months, between the consular officials and the woman, and between the offici als and their bosses in Rome, who in turn kept Canberra in the loop throughout. *The diplomats put the woman in touch with local charities and social services a nd facilitated contact with her Australian relatives. But they told her they cou ldn't pay for her return to Australia. ``A/N (Australian national) called office in May to report that her husband was regularly abusive to her and her children,'' one cable dated June 8, 2007, says. **``A/N was not seeking passports issued for her children but legal advice as to whether reporting her husband to the police would lead her to losing custody of the children,'' a cable dated June 8, 2007, says.** **``We directed A/N to local shelters which aid women in need of assistance.'' Contact later intensified as the woman continued to allege she and her daughters were suffering at the hands of the girls' father* and his family* and that she was struggling to support her children.* By April 2009, the mother reportedly told diplomats she would not stay in Italy she could not support the family financially. Officials said they still saw no reason to fund her return, but then relatives i n Australia threatened to go to the media. That prompted a ``priority'' message from Canberra to Rome to deal with the prob lem, despite consular officials grappling at the time with the aftermath of the Aquila earthquake, in which more than 300 people died. *``(Consular Operations) appreciates difficulties post is under given earthquake but would be grateful report,'' a April 7, 2009, cable said. Finally, in June 2010, the trip was set, the tickets bought and passports delive

red. The Consul escorted the group through customs at Rome airport and waved the m off. The consulate had made a last-minute change to the flight to help the group evad e the girls' father, ``in case he changes his mind'', cables show. ``A/N was very happy with this arrangement and agreed to change to the earlier 1 5:25 flight to avoid any possible confrontations with her ex-husband,'' they sta te.** The diplomats, by aiding the family to come to Australia, arguably helped precip itate the dreadful events that were to come. But from their perspective, they ha d no choice. ``Those diplomats in Rome probably thought they were just doing the right thing, '' a former consular official told The Courier-Mail. Australian consular officials were trained to help their countrymen and women no matter the circumstances they found themselves in abroad, the former official s aid. ``It was banged into us when we were trained. You had to help people regardless of what they'd been up to. You weren't supposed to be judgmental.'' The former official said many Australians who came into contact with consulates and embassies ``get locked up in prison, where what you have to do is make sure they receive the same treatment as others or to assist them wherever possible''. ``You're not allowed to break the law, your diplomatic status doesn't allow you to do that,'' he said. ``Your role as a consular official is to help distressed Australians rather than pass judgment on them. There are quite strict rules. The main job is to help th e person, not judge them.'' The dreadful scenes on the Sunshine Coast and at Brisbane International Airport this week were just the latest episode in a gripping human drama in which few of the adult players have much to feel pleased about. Thousands have already taken sides in the high-stakes tug of love over the four sisters, setting up rival Facebook pages, following every twist and turn and com menting wildly. Politicians were yesterday mostly silent on the issues the case has raised, or b atted it away. **As for the children, psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg warned this week that the events of the past few days could have long-term traumatising effects and the g irls were a flight risk. Moving to Italy would be difficult for the four girls to make sense of, even tho ugh they had lived there previously, he said. **``It's a significant life experience because everything you knew - the sights, the sounds, the culture - is completely different, and what that does is adds t o their sense of loss and of course, that's superimposed upon loss of meaningful contact with Mum, so you have emotional abandonment, as well,'' he said. He said on Wednesday that the single most important factor in the girls' favour was that they were travelling to Italy together. ``It's going to lessen the sense of isolation and abandonment, at least they've got one another,'' Carr-Gregg said. **After the girls were split up at Brisbane International Airport late on Wednes day, they didn't even have that.