True Story: Joanna and Maria

By Trix van der Schalk

Across from me sits a very attractive petit woman of about 35. She is cheerful and smiles a lot. Her name is Joanna van Bijsterveld. Although she says that she is just an ordinary girl from Amerongen, she is in fact startlingly cosmopolitan and speaks at least three languages fluently, English, Dutch and Greek.

In Canada is a little girl of nine, Maria, Joanna’s daughter. Mother and daughter haven’t seen each other for almost five years – by order of the Canadian government and in part due to irrevocable decisions rendered in Dutch courts. The only contact they are allowed is via Skype – by order of Maria’s father. They see each other and talk for an hour every two weeks.

Their story is one where the law has been applied – according to The Hague Convention – without taking any compassionate consideration of the human beings involved. Joanna, who is a Dutch citizen, separated from her Canadian husband before Maria was a year old; she felt threatened by him and was afraid. Once she had officially been granted full custody of Maria, she decided to leave Canada with her little girl and fled to Greece, a country where she felt at home and could speak the language. Mother and daughter later moved to Jordan where they settled down comfortably for 2½ years.

From hereon I quote the timeline given to me by Joanna, as her situation cannot be expressed in a more succinct way.

• In March 2005, I left Canada with our daughter (I was told no consent was required as I had full custody of Maria, and was even able to add her on my Dutch passport).
• In December 2007, I was told to seek legal advice in the Netherlands because Maria’s father had managed to have an INTERPOL arrest warrant issued for my extradition, which meant we could not continue to live in Amman, Jordan.
• In February 2008, we arrived in the Netherlands. Within a few days of our arrival, I was arrested and Maria was placed in temporary foster care while I went to prison.
• In April 2008, my ex-husband managed to successfully use The Hague Convention to apply for her immediate return to Canada – sadly it was only discovered several months later that he had lied in his application with regards to who actually had custody on the date of the alleged abduction.
• In September 2008, my ex-husband managed to finalize our divorce in my absence, and without my knowledge and was granted full custody of our daughter.
• In May 2009, the Supreme Court in the Netherlands finally decided to dismiss the extradition case, thereby acknowledging the fact that I had valid full custody of Maria on the date of our departure from Canada. The dual criminality required for extradition was not fulfilled.
• Since April 2008, Maria has neither been allowed to see me nor any other members of her maternal family. Nobody has done anything to protect her interests and rights.
• Despite an attempt in 2009 to apply for international visitation under The Hague Convention, Maria’s father still refuses to allow me to visit her. Furthermore, he has not withdrawn his charges, which means I risk re-arrest and extradition if I leave the Netherlands. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Surete Quebec arrest warrants have not been withdrawn, despite clearly being based on false information and dubiously modified following my complaint in 2011.
• Neither INTERPOL, the RCMP, Surete Quebec, nor the Dutch courts have ever properly addressed – or taken responsibility for – their mistakes in this case. The Crown Prosecutor has ignored the above-mentioned facts. (Both defenses 284 and 285 in the Criminal Code are clearly applicable here.)
What Joanna has experienced is every parent’s worst nightmare. “It could happen to anyone”, she says. “There should be much more clarity with regards to how The Hague Convention is carried out. More weight should be placed on the responsibility of the central authorities and courts to properly adhere to The Hague Convention, its scope, and their Guide to Good Practice. Far more emphasis needs to be placed on children’s well being and best interests.”

On her road to justice, Joanna suggests that perhaps international couples should draw up pre-nuptial agreements about the futures of their unborn children. “Couples draw up agreements about property, finances, inheritance, and who the dog goes to if they break up. Shouldn’t we be realistic about as yet unborn children in the event of divorce? Who should they live with and where; and under which circumstances? We may not want to spoil our romantic notions of each other before we are married, but we have to consider our feelings of rancour if things should go wrong”.

Joanna misses Maria more than words could express. But she is not worried about Maria. She is sure that her ex-husband and his family love their daughter and that she is well cared for and well adjusted. She no longer harbours any resentment towards him; she has experienced closure and found peace within herself. She is spiritually inclined and neither dwells on the past nor obsesses about the future and is sure that she will see Maria sooner rather than later. Joanna has the following quotation to share with the readers of this article:

Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it…this will miraculously transform your life.” – Eckhart Tolle’

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