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‘I want to stay in Britain’: How a brave 13-year-old stood before Appeal Court judges and said she hated living in Canada with her father.
By Alison Smith Squire
Middlesbrough has never been high on the list of British beauty spots.
But to 13-year-old Emily Gaffney, the proud old town with its motley collection of steelworks, chemical plants and oil refineries is home – and she went to extraordinary lengths to stay there.
Emily is the teenager who secured a landmark court victory that allowed her the right to choose to stay with her mother in the North East, rather than return to live with her father in the snowbound prairies of Canada.
Faced with an unseemly custody battle between her parents, Emily took the brave step of consulting a lawyer, standing up before the Appeal Court in London and telling Lord Justice Thorpe and Lady Justice Smith: ‘Forget Canada. I want to live in Middlesbrough. Nobody is ever forcing me to get on that plane, so don’t think I will.’
In a highly unusual move, the judges ruled a child could decide her own fate in the family courts, even though her mother had been accused of breaking international law and, effectively, abducting her daughter.
Describing Emily as courageous, they decided she was old enough to have views of her own and allowed her to stay with her mother Debbie and nine-year-old sister Lucy in Middlesbrough instead of returning to their father, Ian, thousands of miles away in rural Alberta.
Today, Emily has waived her anonymity and, in her first interview since her court ordeal in September, says: ‘When Mum said Lucy and I might have to leave the UK and live in Canada, I was terrified. Middlesbrough is my home and I didn’t want to leave my friends and my school.
‘I couldn’t believe any court could decide what was best for me without asking my views. So I told my mum I wanted to speak to the judge myself. It was scary sitting with two top judges answering their questions. But I was determined to tell them how I felt.
I was so nervous when Mum and I went into the courtroom. And when the judges asked me to speak with them privately, on my own, I felt really worried.
‘I went up to where they were seated in the courtroom and behind that was a small private door. I followed them through into a conference room.
‘Someone had put out three chairs and a table for us and we all sat down.
‘At first I could barely speak – both the judges kept their wigs and gowns on and it felt as if I were speaking to a headmaster and headmistress – but really they were both so kind.
‘They said I just had to say what I thought. And I told them mostly I didn’t want to live in Canada and Lucy didn’t either. I didn’t like the snow there and I missed my friends and school in Middlesbrough.’
Behind this brave account, though, there lies a much sadder story of a family in crisis – as Emily’s account makes clear.
‘I didn’t want to live with Dad – I wanted to live with Mum. It was hard telling them that and I began to cry. Luckily there was a box of tissues on the table and the male judge handed me the box.
‘He said, “Don’t worry, just take your time”, but I replied I was OK and after drying my eyes, we carried on.
‘I was in there for about half-an-hour. I told them everything. Eventually, they said it was time to go back into the courtroom.
‘I was shaking when they made the judgment. When I knew I could definitely stay with Mum and not be sent back to Canada, I just put my arms around Mum. I wanted to hug the judges for listening to me.’
Like generations before them, Emily’s parents had moved to Canada in the hope of a better life. The couple, both from Middlesbrough, met when Debbie was 19 and Ian was 20, and both worked for a telecommunications company.
After they married in September 1988, Ian set up his own roofing company and, following the birth of their two children, Debbie worked part-time as a teaching support assistant at a local school.
Debbie, 48, recalls: ‘For many years life ticked on fine. We lived in a beautiful detached three-bedroom house and enjoyed holidays abroad.
‘But Ian had always harboured a dream of living in Canada after falling in love with pictures of the Rockies as a small boy.
‘In 2005, when his business hit financial difficulties, the dream became a reality.’
She adds: ‘Although I tried to talk about our business problems, Ian just seemed to go into himself.
‘He’d always liked golf but now it seemed he made any excuse to be out all day. And if he wasn’t on the golf course, he’d be drowning his sorrows in the pub.
‘Soon, with money worries and both of us working all hours, our marriage was in crisis and we began to talk about separating.’
Then Debbie spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. ‘A British company was recruiting in Canada for skilled craftsmen in the roofing industry,’ she recalls.
‘When I showed it to Ian, his face lit up. It seemed to be the answer to everything. The money was excellent, which meant we could clear our debts and, quite apart from that, it was a new challenge for Ian.
‘The only difficulty was that he would, at least at first, have to go on his own. But then even that seemed a blessing. After all, we both saw him going away as a trial separation, and if eventually I could join him with the children, it would be a fresh start.’
In 2006, Ian left for Alberta. ‘He adored Canada – it was everything he’d hoped for and he would ring us full of how wonderful life was there,’ says Debbie.
‘He found a large three-storey seven-bedroom house to live in, drove a 4×4 car, played golf and was close enough to the mountains to go trekking if he wanted.
Both girls are sporty and he enthused about the ice-skating and ice-hockey they could become involved with. He couldn’t wait for us to join him and we both felt Canada could hold the key to rekindling our marriage.’
By the end of 2007 Debbie had handed in her notice, sold their house in Britain and, buoyed by her husband’s enthusiasm, took the children, then aged ten and six, out of their Roman Catholic primary school and flew out to join him.
Yet, she says, no sooner had she stepped off the plane, she immediately wondered if the Canadian life was for her.
‘I’ll never forget the icy chill that swept over me,’ she says. ‘In the UK, it’s headline news if the weather is a few degrees below zero. But the biting wind in Canada made it minus 43 degrees. I’d never felt cold like it.’
Worse was to come. ‘When I saw the house, my heart sank,’ she says.
‘While it was a lovely house and beautifully kept, it was miles from anywhere. With only a couple of other houses as far as the eye could see, I was shocked by how isolated it was.
‘The land around it was flat – a barren snow-covered wilderness. Ian adored the lakes, rivers and grasslands but to me the Canadian prairies were just never-ending. I hated the straight roads, the way you could drive for miles and not see a soul.’
Nevertheless, over the next few days she enrolled the girls at a local school – though local meant several miles away – and tried to settle down in her new surroundings.
‘But it was very hard to adjust,’ she says.
‘To start with, whereas the girls’ old school was round the corner, now we faced a 30-minute drive every day. And when I visited I was shocked by how small and old-fashioned it was.
‘Apart from the desks, we had to provide everything. If the girls so much as forgot their pencil that meant they couldn’t do any work that day. And then, when I heard other pupils read, I realised they were about two years behind our daughters.
‘Emily, particularly, is very bright and I couldn’t help worrying how she’d cope.’
As the days became weeks, and then months, Debbie began to feel very alone. ‘Going to the supermarket became the highlight of my week, although that was a major expedition as it was so far away.
‘I tried my best to find something to do. I volunteered as a classroom helper at the girls’ school and joined to help with brownies.
‘The girls had few friends as anyone they became friendly with lived miles away. And the relentless cold was hard to cope with.
‘The snow arrived in September and didn’t clear until April. Then there was only about six weeks of summer before the days grew cold again.
‘We bought the girls a trampoline and climbing frame for the garden but much of the time it was simply too cold for them to play out. At first the snow was a novelty but soon the girls complained that they hated it.’
When they went back to Britain for a holiday, neither Debbie nor her daughters wanted to return – which caused deeper rifts in her marriage.
‘Our relationship went from bad to worse,’ says Debbie. ‘Ian still drank and stayed out, only now he was resentful that I didn’t like Canada and I was resentful of him for bringing us there.
‘Whenever I said I wanted us to go back to the UK, it caused terrible violent rows because he wouldn’t have it. He’d say, “You go back but you’re not taking the girls. They will stay here with me.” ’
So unknown to Ian, Debbie booked a flight home for her and her daughters in December 2009. ‘Emily wanted to leave as badly as I did,’ she says, ‘so we told no one. One Saturday, when Ian went shopping, we left.’
In June 2010, six months after leaving Canada, Debbie received a call from Middlesbrough police. ‘I couldn’t believe it when two officers turned up on the doorstep and demanded my driving licence and our passports,’ she says.
‘And I was stunned when they told me that under the Hague Convention, Ian had got a solicitor and I was being accused of abducting my own girls from Canada.’
Despite both girls making statements saying they wanted to remain in Britain, their father secured a High Court order last August for the return of his daughters to Canada for their future to be decided there. Says Debbie: ‘I felt sick I was going to lose my daughters. We were all sobbing and devastated.
‘I had no idea he could accuse me of abducting the children. After all, every day in the UK mothers and their children leave the marital home and no one accuses them of abduction. And I would never have stopped Ian seeing the girls – our marriage was over and I didn’t want to live in Canada a moment longer.’
It was when she decided to appeal that Emily declared she would fight to stay in the UK herself. Emily says: ‘I just didn’t want to go back to Canada ever again and neither did Lucy. Mum was in pieces but I became stronger for all of us.
‘I went to see a solicitor and although we couldn’t afford to have one represent me in court, I told Mum when the appeal case was heard, I’d come to London with her.’
On September 21, Emily and her mother made the seven-hour journey to London. At the Civil Appeal Court, Emily wrote a letter to the judges.
Incredibly, having read the letter, both judges invited Emily in to meet them. She says: ‘I told them the truth. I didn’t want to live in Canada with Dad and if they did try to force me back, I’d refuse. I told them all about dad’s drinking and how when he drank he would shout a lot. Eventually, they said it was time to go back into the courtroom.’
In overturning the siblings’ return orders to Canada, Lord Justice Thorpe – one of the nation’s most senior family judges – described Emily as an ‘articulate, determined and courageous adolescent’ who had made plain her opposition.
He said: ‘It is highly unusual for this court to meet a child before deciding an appeal … but I believe it was just and necessary in this case.’
Debbie, who has not heard from her husband since the ruling, says: ‘Ian and I believed emigrating would give our marriage a fresh start.
And while you might imagine you can leave all your problems behind, the truth is that’s impossible. Problems in your relationship don’t just disappear because you move abroad. If anything, without your usual network of family and friends around, they fester and making a relationship work becomes even harder.
‘I only hope my experience serves as a warning to any family thinking of moving abroad.
‘I will never get over being accused of abducting my own British-born children from a country we only ever spent 18 months in. I’m just so proud of Emily and thankful those judges had the sense to listen to what she had to say.’