Call for Irish State to intervene in seizure of Irish two-year-old from mother

The toddler, who was still bottle-feeding and wearing nappies, was taken from his mother’s arms by a bailiff and armed police

The Irish State has been called on to intervene to aid an Irish mother whose two-year-old child was seized by French military police and sent to Malta.

The two-year-old, who was still bottle-feeding and wearing nappies, was taken from his mother’s arms by a bailiff and armed members of the French gendarmerie who arrived without warning at a house where the mother works in Antibes on May 17th.

Sarah Jane O’Brien (36), a native of Cratloe, Co Clare who works in asset management in the south of France and Monaco, had been unaware the child’s father had launched a legal procedure to bring the boy to Malta, her lawyers say, and was not represented in court.

“It’s an injustice,” said Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe, who represents the Clare constituency and is the party’s spokesman on tourism and aviation.

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He called on the Irish State to intervene, pointing out that the toddler holds an Irish passport.

“This child is an Irish citizen and the child of an Irish mother. Minister Coveney and indeed Minister McEntee routinely sit down with their counterparts in Europe… We do need something said politically on this case,” Mr Crowe said.

The baby was born to Ms O’Brien and her Maltese then-boyfriend in Malta in December 2019, and also holds Maltese citizenship.

The couple had been in a long-distance relationship. Ms O’Brien travelled to the island on September 24th 2019 and found herself unable to leave, her lawyers say, as she developed pregnancy-related complications and was advised not to travel. She was ultimately hospitalised leading up to the baby’s birth by emergency C-section.

Shortly after her discharge from hospital in January 2020, Malta shut down travel due to the Covid-19 pandemic, preventing her return to France.

“The mother was in Malta for health reasons. Because she was sick, and because then Covid came,” said her lawyer Maître David Antoine.

This December, the two parents and their child travelled together from Malta to France, where Ms O’Brien remained behind with her son.

Dr Robert Thake, a lawyer representing the father, told The Irish Times Ms O’Brien had “fled” with her child after she and the father “had an argument”.

“When Ms O’Brien surreptitiously fled the villa at which they were staying with the minor child, she did so without the consent of the father and consequently illegally,” Dr Thake said in a statement.

Dr Thake successfully filed for a return order under the Hague Abduction Convention, a multilateral treaty that deals with cases when a parent takes a child to another jurisdiction or retains a child in another jurisdiction without the consent of the other parent.

Ms O’Brien’s lawyer Maître Antoine told The Irish Times his client “was not informed” of the court case. A copy of the judgment reads that she was “legally summoned at the address stated in her hearing”, but was not represented in court.

The judgment states that Ms O’Brien had informed police in an interview in February that she was a “victim of psychological and sexual violence” in the relationship.

The court dismissed this on the basis that Ms O’Brien had not provided context and had not filed a complaint. Evidence supplied by the father showing loving messages exchanged between the two during 2021 “invalidate such accusations”, the court ruled.

The court found Ms O’Brien “lived in Malta”, noting that she had completed a self-employment form, opened a bank account, and applied for a residency card in the spring of 2021, something her lawyers say was a requirement to continue to receive medical care.

The court ruled the child’s “habitual residence” was in Malta, noting his record of medical checks and attendance at a day care, and on that basis ordered the toddler’s return from France.

The toddler was integrated in Malta and “had a large family and a stable home,” the lawyer for his father told The Irish Times. “When Ms O’Brien kept him in France illegally, she tore the child away from all of this.”

Ms O’Brien was informed of the ruling by post, and filed an appeal the following day on May 11th.

When the police arrived to remove the child six days later, Ms O’Brien called her lawyer and handed the phone to the bailiff, according to a report by the bailiff. Maître Antoine informed him over the phone that an appeal was pending and that a hearing for a stay of execution of the judgment was set for the following Monday. Nevertheless, the child was removed.

“Five gendarmes to take a little boy of two years from the arms of his mother? You don’t need to be a specialist to understand there is a problem,” Maître Antoine told The Irish Times.

The lawyer representing the father said the child was now “happy and healthy” living with his father.

“Shortly after his return to Malta, the child readjusted and resettled into his routine,” he said.

The father has set up a schedule of calls to allow Ms O’Brien speak to her son four times a week, he continued.

Mr Crowe said Ms O’Brien is in “huge distress” at being separated from her toddler.

“I’m a father of three young kids myself and I can’t even begin to imagine what she’s going through,” he said.

He called on the Irish Embassy in France and the Department of Foreign Affairs to give their full assistance in the case. Ms O’Brien and her legal team have also raised the case with the French minister for justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it “is aware of this case and has provided advice to the citizen. The Department does not comment on individual cases”.

*This story was amended to reflect that while Ms O’Brien’s lawyers say five armed police were involved in the seizure of the baby, the father’s lawyer Dr Thake says it was three and not all were armed.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times