Defiant: mother tells why she took her son and ran
Caroline Overington | February 02, 2009
MELINDA Stratton is a woman on the run. In April last year, she fled Australia with her four-year-old son, Andrew, to avoid a custody hearing in the Family Court.
In December, her husband, NSW deputy fire chief Ken Thompson, asked the court to lift a ban on identifying Andrew so he could launch an international campaign to find the boy.
Photographs of Andrew are now plastered on buses in Europe, and on billboards in England. Mr Thompson has launched a website, and a group email has gone around the world, urging people to contact Interpol if they see Ms Stratton.
Ms Stratton - a professional woman from Sydney's northern suburbs, who has an MBA, speaks French and German, and has lived and worked abroad - has so far managed to dodge the authorities, but yesterday emerged from seclusion to tell her side of the story.
A 10-page letter - the first contact between Ms Stratton and anyone outside her immediate family since last April - was provided to The Australian with no identifying marks. It was dated January 15.
Ms Stratton says she had no choice other than to flee Australia, because she had lost faith in the Family Court.
She says the balance of the court - once firmly in favour of granting custody to mothers - had tipped dramatically towards fathers. The Howard government's regime of "shared parenting" had given power to fathers at the expense of mothers.
"I have lost all faith in any form of justice coming out of Australia," Ms Stratton says.
"By remaining silent, however, I ensure that they (the Family Court) can continue to treat other mothers and children this way."
Ms Stratton does not say where she is hiding, but adds: "Currently, my son is well and happy.
"I spent $30,000 on court proceedings. I have been told I will receive harsh penalties as 'punishment' for leaving from the Family Court.
"I am in my 40s. My son is only four. His welfare and future are my priority.
"The decision to break all contact with my family and friends, leave my job and our home was not taken lightly.
"I also understand that the Family Court could take my son away from me and give Ken full custody of him, again as punishment."
The battle between Ms Stratton and Mr Thompson for access to Andrew is complex and bitter.
She says he suffers from depression and anxiety. He says he suffered from "mild anxiety" when his first marriage ended 20 years ago.
"It was nothing more than mild anxiety," he says.
"It was a very difficult time, but it was also a very long time ago."
When he launched his campaign to find Andrew, Mr Thompson said that his former wife had a "mental condition". On his blogs, he says she is "paranoid" and that she may harm Andrew rather than return him to Sydney.
Ms Stratton says she has "no mental problems whatsoever".
Ms Stratton has made more serious allegations against Mr Thompson but The Australian is constrained by law from publishing them. She made the allegations in December 2007, left the family home in January last year, and the country in April.
Mr Thompson strenuously denies his wife's claims, saying she "made all kinds of allegations ... the psychologists have said there is no reason to even investigate them".
Ms Stratton says the court psychologist is biased against mothers. She points to papers presented by Family Court practitioners in which they say that mothers can make up allegations of abuse and that children can be manipulated by their mothers to say they have been abused.
The identity of the psychologist is protected by the Family Law Act (1975).
The Family Court ignored Ms Stratton's complaints and ordered her to make their son available for supervised contact with his father three or four times a week.
She complied only a few times before fleeing.
Her move was not unprecedented: although there have been some high-profile cases of men leaving Australia with their children - such as in the case of Canadian mother Melissa Hawach, whose two children were taken to Lebanon by their Sydney-based father and freed by mercenaries - it is overwhelmingly the mother who flees.
According to the Attorney-General's Department, more than 120 children were abducted and taken out of Australia last year. In 75 per cent of cases, the mother was suspected of taking the children.
Mr Thompson said his former wife should return to Australia. "I'm not the one who has run away from the court," he said. "I'm the one who took court action.
"She's decided that the police were wrong, the courts were wrong, the psychologists are wrong, and she's right.
"If she's right, I don't understand why she doesn't come back and see the matter through in the Family Court.
"What kind of country do we live in if people can disagree with what the court says, and just take off?"
The AFP is conducting a criminal investigation into Andrew's abduction and subsequent disappearance.
Interpol has also issued alerts for Ms Stratton and Andrew in 187 countries.
The Family Court publication order warns anyone recognising Ms Stratton or her son not to approach them and to instead pass the information on to police.