After one year, 7 months and 24 days, Marie finally had her son back on Canadian soil after a journey any mother could only consider a nightmare.
Waiting for her at the end of the jetway on September 3, 2021 were three Toronto Police Service officers, but she only knew the one – by voice anyway, they had never met in person before.
“My name is Jason, can I give you a hug?” said the man in the grey suit, who had been with her every step of the way in emails, phone calls and text messages that alternated between hopeful and despondent and, then, finally joyful.
She gladly accepted the embrace in a tearful moment that marked the end of her of her battle travelling to France, then Cameroon to retrieve her now six-year-old son, who had been abducted by her estranged husband from junior kindergarten.
Detective Constable Jason Ferreira, an investigator at 51 Division, was the linchpin of a multi-jurisdictional team helping find the little boy a way home.
“I can’t tell you how many phone calls we had, or emails, it must be over a thousand,” said Ferreira, who initially arranged to have a YWCA Toronto translator help him speak to Marie at the start of the case, and then watched as she summoned both her courage and a command of English at the end. “She showed tremendous strength through this, she did the work and we as law enforcement did what we could to support her.”
Marie (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) had moved to Canada with her husband in January 2017, but became estranged in March 2017 after he became abusive. She and her son moved into a shelter and then out on their own.
They eventually shared custody of the little boy, Sam (his name also changed.)
After starting a job as an educational assistant for special needs children, her estranged husband agreed to take Sam to school during the week – a change in their informal custody arrangement.
But on January 9, 2020, a few days into their agreement, they did not show up to school.
She went to the school. She went to his apartment, no one was home. Phone calls, text messages went unanswered.
Just after 11 a.m. she called police.
The information began coming back to 51 Division, where Assistant Crown Attorney Meghan Scott, who was the Embedded Crown at the time, noticed the intensity of the always busy office ratchet up a notch.
“I sat in that office for 18 months, listened to the radios and watched officers respond quickly to a lot of different, very intense scenarios,” said Scott. “But to watch the whole team mobilize that day and to see their commitment to the case throughout, it was on another level. I think when a child is involved, or when there is potential harm to a child, there is a stronger reaction, as many of these officers are parents themselves.”
Police found security video that showed her estranged husband with a friend leaving the apartment building the day before with suitcases. His rental car was reported to be dropped off at Pearson International airport. The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority confirmed the worst case scenario – they had flown to Montreal and then onto Paris.
Later that day, she received a call from him, stating he and Sam were not coming back. She passed out and was taken to hospital.
I told her it’s going to be a long battle and that we would be charging her estranged husband with child abduction by a parent and I began building the case
Constable Guy Kama, who speaks French, decided to try dad’s number himself. He reached him and the father stated that he didn’t care what police had to say and he wasn’t coming back. He had said in the past that he had wanted to leave Canada after failing to find good work – something he attributed to not getting a clean background check after his abuse was reported to police.
Ferreira briefed Marie on what police knew and prepared her for what was coming next.
“I told her it’s going to be a long battle and that we would be charging her estranged husband with child abduction by a parent and I began building the case,” said Ferreira, who enlisted the help of Scott.
Serving as a sort of in-house counsel for the Toronto Police, Scott’s job was to ensure cases are strong before they go to court and provide police with continuing legal education, among other work. She had never encountered a case like this before and consulted with other Crowns on strategy. She was advised that extradition would not work in this instance, as both the father and son were French citizens and instead it was decided that she and the police would pursue the laying of a parental child abduction charge in the event the father ever returns to Canada. This offence is one of a few that requires the consent of the Attorney General of Ontario for the charge to be laid.
Ferreira says they worked in lock-step with Marie on every avenue possible.
“In the meantime Marie was working through the courts. I knew there was nothing I could physically could do but I would do everything I could to help her.”
The RCMP and Interpol helped Toronto confirm through French police the whereabouts of the child and the father, who were staying with family.
RCMP National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remain investigator Constable Yelena Handy said all these cases are complex as they involve multiple agencies, jurisdictions, laws and justice systems.
“Our role is to bring all the partners together,” she said, noting that this case spanned domestic resources from the Canada Border Services Agency, Immigration and Citizenship Canada and RCMP Liaison Officers abroad to the French National Police and finally the French Embassy in Yaounde and Cameroonian National Gendarmerie. “Our goal is to assist local police and bring people together.”
Hundreds of children are abducted by parents from Canada and taken abroad each year – its hard to know how many come back as many cases are settled through civil arrangements.
The Central Authority for the Hague Convention in Ontario and Global Affairs Canada also gave their assistance – the treaty gives parents left behind a mechanism to bring their children home across more than 80 countries.
In March 2020, as the pandemic just became a reality to most people, Marie travelled to France with an Ontario court order for the return of her son and a pit in her stomach. Travelling from the airport directly to the police station, she presented the order and French police retrieved Sam from school to be reunited with his mother.
Yes, I will come back for you
His father came to the station with a lawyer, and they argued the Ontario order was not enforceable on French soil. They prevailed and Sam had to leave with his father.
“It was very hard, I was crying, he was crying,” Marie said of having her son fall through her grasp. “I said ‘Yes, I will come back for you.’”
She did not know at that time that she would not hear her son’s voice, see his face or hold him in her arms for more than a year.
It was then that the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down international borders and she was forced to leave March 20, 2020. But before she left she planted a seed, pursuing her case with a French prosecutor.
On April 1, 2020, the French prosecutor brought action against the father for a violation of the Hague convention for travelling to France without the permission of Marie.
He appealed the order and was unsuccessful.
In the meantime, having secured the consent of the Attorney General to lay charges of parental abduction, a Canada-wide warrant was issued for the father’s arrest.
The Central Authority of the Province of Ontario informed Marie that that her estranged husband had finally booked a flight for them home.
“I got his bedroom ready. I cooked. I was excited. I did not sleep.”
Ferreira called her after talking to the Canada Border Services Agency.
“Marie, I’m so sorry, they didn’t show up to the flight.”
Toronto Police, in conjunction with the Embedded Crown, the RCMP and Interpol Canada placed a Red Notice on him and Yellow Notice on Sam in order to hold them in custody by police or at a border.
Six months passed before Marie got word that her son was in Cameroon, smuggled into the country avoiding the Interpol notices.
She confided in only her mother, Charlotte (name also changed), that Sam was in Cameroon and arranged to visit in June 2021. It was her mother who encouraged her to make arrangements through the prosecutor and seek the help of authorities before acting on retrieving Sam. To make sure that her efforts to bring her son home would be iron-clad this time.
Before she left for Cameroon, tragedy struck. Her 58-year-old mother suffered a cardiac arrest and died. She would be travelling home for a funeral but also remained dedicated to a reunion with her son.
“It was like a dream now, her burial was on the same day as the birth of Sam, June 12,” she said. “After burying my mom, I said I don’t have time to cry now. What I can do now is bring Sam back home for her.”
She worked to gather the proper documentation and line up police officials to action the prosecutor’s order.
In July, the police tried to locate Sam, but couldn’t find the father and son. They tried again.
A What’s App video call came through. A policeman identified himself and asked if Sam was in the room as he panned. She screamed ‘it’s him’ and the call abruptly ended.
She panicked thinking she might have blown the whole thing with her outburst and tried to call back. No response.
In about 10 minutes, another video call. A policemen in a vehicle said to meet them at the station, they had her son.
She ran out the house, flagging down the nearest taxi and sat on the edge of her seat the entire ride. They soon arrived at the station and she popped out the door, only now realizing she had no money.
“I explained to the driver that I was there to retrieve my son and was sorry I had no money on me – he said ‘God Bless you sister, you don’t have to pay, you go keep your son safe.’”
After seven minutes, she saw two police cars approaching the station.
“I started to scream ‘Sam, Sam.’ I will never forget taking him in my arms. He said ‘Mommy, I was looking for you for two years now.’”
Her family retrieved her and they went to buy Sam new shoes and clothes before they gathered for a Catholic prayer and a joyous family dinner. She let Ferreira know he was safe.
She then hunkered down, fearful that anyone would know where they were. She only went to the French embassy, to arrange her escape.
They told her they could get her out on ”laissez passez” visa but at this time of year tickets are expensive and it would cost $5,200.
They laid low a few days.
A French police officer and driver escorted them to the airport and got her on the plane.
Her estranged husband arrived at the airport two days later with documents stating she could not leave.
In France, she had to collect documents for Sam to leave, filling out documents, pleading with bureaucrats and cajoling security guards along the way.
She kept a low profile. Without any money left, credit cards tapped out, she was staying with a friend in Paris close to where her estranged husband had friends and family.
“Ten days later, I got Sam’s passport, I took a photo and sent an email to Jason,” she said, noting she still had to go to the Canadian embassy to leave.
Ferreira had worked with the RCMP in the background. They arranged a repatriation flight for free through Air Canada. The airline staff made the trip home special. An Air Canada representative in Paris asked her if she was Marie and to follow him. They brought her and Sam to the VIP lounge and told them to enjoy whatever they liked.
They seated Sam and her in business class. The flight attendant told Marie how courageous she was.
“I started to cry. It was like I was a queen and he was a prince, it was wonderful,” she says, of the dramatic turn in their fortunes. “When we landed, they told me someone was waiting for me.”
She had come full circle and was happy to share the moment with the police officer who had helped her the whole way.
“Marie, I’ve had many cases, but your case was very important to me and always my top priority,” said Ferreira, who credits her drive with bringing Sam home.
Ferreira notes that a Canada-wide warrant is still in place for the father, who will face a parental child abduction charge if he returns to Canada.
Jason, he was an angel... He was always ready to find a solution
Marie appreciated his support, as she often felt powerless along the way.
“Jason, he was an angel,” she said. “He was always ready to find a solution, sometimes when I was down, I would see an email from Jason to say hi, and ask me if I have an update. That really kept me going.”
She would counsel anyone else with an abducted child to be thorough and careful through the process but know that the Hague Convention gives them the right to bring their child home in many countries.
“I learned a lot about the law, I stayed curious… I stayed patient” she said. “But first, because I’m a Christian, I had faith.”
RCMP Constable Handy said any parent who suspects a child abduction should contact local police right away in hope they can stop them before leaving the country. And if do leave, they should understand that the process for bringing them home is often complex.
Global Affairs Canada has published a handbook on International Child Abduction for parents left behind to help them understand their options for bringing their children home.
When Handy knew Marie and Sam had boarded the plane in Paris, she watched online as the flight made its way over the Atlantic, updating colleagues along the way.
“I will never forget this case. It was amazing to see all these different people and agencies come together to help get him home. Without everyone helping it would not have been possible,” she noted, saying each piece of information and evidence helped bolster Marie’s case while abroad, lending her legitimacy to fight her case on the ground in France and Cameroon. “But Marie’s courage and strength was most amazing.”
Sam is quite happy to be at home with mom, and often sits beside her as she attends virtual classes to attain her Bachelor of Education en route to becoming a teacher.
“Sam is funny little boy, he likes to watch movies with me, I teach him to cook. He loves to swim,” Marie beams of her son, noting they are catching up after their separation. “This has made us bond.”