Don’t believe everything you hear

In mid-March, an Amber Alert was issued by York Regional Police because the mother of a five-year-old girl became alarmed when the child’s father — the parents had recently separated — had picked her up from school without her knowledge or consent. Some hours later, the alert was called off after the child was found unharmed, and police announced that they would not lay any charges against the father.

Amber Alerts, introduced in the United States in 1996 after the kidnapping and murder of a nine-year-old girl in Texas and in Canada in 2002, “engage the help of the public in searching for a missing, at-risk child; usually when it is believed the child has been abducted.”

In Ontario, the OPP facilitate the process, and an alert is issued only if a number of criteria are met.

As York Regional Police Constable Andy Pattenden explained, a missing child report must go through several levels of investigation when an Amber Alert is being considered: first, the police must believe the child is in danger, then the file is reviewed by the investigations team, followed by another review by an officer at the inspector level or higher who is with the real-time operations centre. If an alert seems appropriate, the file is passed on to the OPP, where a final review is conducted before a decision is made. Pattenden commented:

“In my time in the media relations office now, seven years, I can’t recall a time where we issued an Amber Alert . . . We get missing child calls every single day. There are a lot of investigations . . . that don’t involve an Amber Alert.”

Who to believe?

When one parent abducts a child from the other, it is often in the context of intimate partner abuse. The victim may well be the only witness to that abuse. Not surprisingly, the perpetrator often denies he has done anything wrong. Despite decades of research and advocacy work to raise awareness about violence within families, both its prevalence and its gendered reality continue to be questioned by many.

This leaves a woman who attempts to leave an abusive relationship, especially if she has children, in a difficult position. If she talks about the abuse, she may not be believed – by professionals she turns to for support, by the family and criminal court systems, even by family and friends. If she attempts to protect her children from ongoing harm by limiting their contact with their father, he may allege she is trying to alienate them from him. In this context, her steps to ensure her children’s safety may result in further criticism of her and, more seriously, in an inappropriate legal response.

A self-interested tale

The Markham Amber Alert story is an illustration of this. After conducting a proper investigation, the OPP issued an alert and the child was found quickly and unharmed.

The father, Solomon Jaffri, immediately took to both mainstream and social media, building a narrative of himself as a loving and caring dad, victimized because of “false allegations” made by the child’s mother “out of spite.”

He commented:

“I hope the system isn’t misused again and innocent fathers and their children aren’t put through the trouble my daughter and I were put through. I would never do anything to harm my daughter.”

He made much of the fact that there were no court proceedings against him. This does not mean there was nothing to be concerned about. Only about 25% of women report violence by their partner to the police. Many are reluctant to start even family court proceedings out of fear their partner’s abuse will escalate or extend to abducting the children.

Comments on social media indicated that the parents had only recently separated and that Jaffri had been involuntarily hospitalized because he had threatened to kill himself. The mother had no reason to think he would be released when he was, which may be why no court proceedings were yet underway.

As Jaffri aired his grievances in public, the mother remained silent; no doubt to preserve some measure of privacy for herself and her child, but possibly out of fear of retribution.

Mob mentality

Such fear was likely well placed. The case attracted an immediate following of people who knew nothing about it beyond the story Jaffri had created. Responses on social media saw him as the victim and were vindictive in their comments about the child’s mother: “lying bitch,” “Spiteful woman. Take her to court.” “There are so many women out there that do this to their children and their fathers.”

The fathers’ rights movement signed on to offer support. An individual who makes orthotics for kids with built-in GPS trackers “to locate your loved ones” offered “respects” to Jaffri for what he was put through. An online petition to stop the so-called abuse of the Amber Alert system was started.

Where is the truth?

In this case, the Amber Alert system worked. We will never know whether the child was at risk of being harmed by her father: because the system worked as it should, she was found quickly and in good health.

The case also lets us see, once again, that abusive men often lie: Shortly after the child was found, the mother was able to obtain an ex parte order for interim sole custody of the child, with no access to the father, an order prohibiting him from removing the child from the area, and a restraining order. He was also ordered to remove all social media posts relating to the mother and the Amber Alert.

These kinds of orders are rare. They are issued when a judge believes that there is an emergency situation – usually related to safety or fear of child abduction — requiring an immediate response. The party seeking such an order must present extremely detailed evidence to support their claim and, even with that evidence, there is no guarantee of success.

Perhaps the next time a father makes the kinds of claims that Jaffri did, it behooves people to consider that there may be more to the story than he is choosing to share.

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