Another reminder of some of the risks related to international custody battles. Global Affairs Canada is working on over 300 known cases worldwide (the actual number is likely higher):
Ms. Dai is now midway through an appeal, her final avenue for securing access to her son.
She has borne the costs alone. Like Alison Azer, the Courtenay, B.C. woman whose children were allegedly abducted to Iran, Ms. Dai has struggled to get help from home. She has written Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and multiple people at the Canadian embassy in Beijing. One told her to call local police if her child was in danger and declined her request for a letter of support she could use in court: “this would involve the Government of Canada in a private legal matter, which is not part of our mandate as consular officials.”
Ms. Dai said she sees that as “a message to other Canadian mothers” in China that “if they get in any sort of trouble, be aware that no one can help.”
In an e-mail, Foreign Affairs spokesman François Lasalle said officials are providing Ms. Dai “consular assistance,” and “work hard” to support more than 300 Canadian families worldwide in similar circumstances. A new Chinese domestic violence law, enacted this year, “is a significant improvement” but “still has important shortcomings,” he said.
“We are committed to ensuring the promotion and protection of women’s and girls’ human rights,” he said.
Ms. Dai, however, has found greater support from others in China after she took her fight public, galvanizing other mothers to confront weaknesses in their legal system and advocate for change in a country where fast-rising divorce rates are approaching U.S. levels. Ms. Dai has made advocacy a full-time job, securing a small office in Beijing and hiring three assistants.
Her story has been published by more than 200 media outlets and she has been interviewed on national television shows. She has hired the lawyer who represented Kim Lee, an American woman beaten by her famous Chinese husband, a hotly discussed case that drew national attention to domestic abuse problems in China.
The pain Ms. Dai suffered “is more severe” than what Ms. Lee endured, her lawyer, Qi Lianfeng, said in an interview.
Ms. Dai says her former husband, movie stuntman Liu Jie, slapped her, pushed her to the ground, stomped on her face and once wrenched her leg so badly she had trouble walking.
In a trial last year, however, Mr. Liu argued that Tristan should stay with him because Ms. Dai “is irresponsible, doesn’t care about the son or want to raise him” and was too busy working, according to a summary contained in the verdict released this spring. The judge found that Mr. Liu had hit Ms. Dai, but gave him custody nonetheless, citing “the principle of benefiting his healthy physical and mental growth.”
Reached for comment, Mr. Liu said “it’s a family matter,” and asked for privacy.
The stakes in China are high for fathers and their families. The long-standing one-child policy means a child, especially a son, is expected to “carry on the family blood,” said Li Ying, a lawyer and director of a Beijing legal assistance agency.
When those families seize their children, they also gain an advantage in court, where judges tend to view leaving the child in place as less disruptive, heavily emphasizing possession.
Courts also have little power to enforce custody rulings. And authorities try to keep problems quiet. Ms. Dai was visited by police before holding a recent conference on custody issues, and subsequently asked a Globe and Mail reporter not to attend to avoid further problems.
Still, custody problems are not unique to China, which is moving to ensure a new domestic violence law, enacted this year, creates real change. Officials are currently drafting detailed guidelines for its enforcement.
“In the future, things will be better, particularly in custody matters,” said Yang Xiaolin, a lawyer who was part of a special team at Nanjing Normal University examining problems with child custody.
But, he said, attitudes must first change.
“The Chinese legal system has yet to treat juveniles seriously,” he said. To decide custody, “a child’s needs must be taken into account. Not only their material needs, but also emotional ones.”