A Staffordshire father launched a global rescue mission to find his abducted son. Now he hopes to help the growing number of parents whose children are snatched and taken abroad. Christina Savvas reports.
When Sean Felton returned home to find his wife had fled with their two-year-old son to Thailand he thought he had little hope of ever seeing the boy again.
He battled for six months, enlisting the help of authorities to get his son back, before he resorted to hatching an ambitious and desperate plan.
The painter and decorator, from Norton Canes, Staffordshire, faked his identity, posing as a rich American playboy on Facebook, to trick his wife into handing over their son.
The 40-year-old used the social networking site to woo wife Kim and travelled 6,000 miles to the remote village of Chiang Rai in Thailand after tracking her down.
But despite the overwhelming joy of being reunited with his Joe, the state the boy was in still haunts him.
“Joe was in a terrible mess when I found him,” he said.
“A terrible mess, physically and mentally. He couldn’t speak, his teeth were broken, he had permanent bruises down his back, his thumbnails had been ripped out, he was like a wild animal.
"I will never ever get the picture out of my head of seeing him the way I found him.”
Mr Felton’s ordeal started on March 26 last year when he returned to find his wife of four years, real name Saowapak, had gone with Joe.
Initially he thought he would never see his son again as the police were powerless to act. He contacted the Commonwealth Office, the British Embassy and his local MP but no one could help.
That is when Mr Felton began his relentless search online.
He located his wife and the mission began. He set up a false Facebook account pretending to be a rich Ferrari-owning American, under the alias Matt Young, and contacted her.
His wife fell for the attention and accepted him as a friend. Mr Felton then made contact with her Facebook friends to track her down and eventually it led to an emotional confrontation.
With the help of the police and the British Embassy, Joe was brought back to Britain but Mr Felton returned financially crippled and with no support to rebuild his life with a confused little boy.
It was during this time that he decided to do more to help others enduring the nightmare of losing their children.
Reunite, a UK charity specialising in international parental child abduction, said the number of cases reported had increased by 36 per cent to 228 in the first half of this year, including parents who feared their child was in danger of abduction.
Mr Felton said: “Abduction cases in the UK are going up each year and there are thousands of cases in America every day and worldwide.
“All governments brush it under the table. You have organisations like Reunite which work side by side with the Commonwealth Office but as soon as it’s a non-Hague Convention country, which most are, there’s nothing they can do.
“They can only advise by saying you need to get a specialist solicitor but they can only take it to High Court and get a ward of court, which is only legal in England and Wales.
‘‘You go around in circles. Within two weeks of going into the system, I realised they weren’t going to be able to help me. I had to do it myself.
“I’m talking to parents now who got their children back and they are financially broke. I had to sell nearly everything. I put my house on the market, sold my car, borrowed, worked. The legal costs are ridiculous.
“It’s especially frustrating when a child is involved and is in danger. I had photographic and written evidence that Joe was in danger.
" She sent me a photo asking for £30,000. It looked like he had been in a concentration camp, that’s how bad it was and still nobody could do anything.
“It is heartbreaking and there is no support when you get back. Nobody rang me to ask how we were. There was no support to get back to some sort of normality. There was no help.”
Mr Felton is setting up a campaign website called Abducted Angels.
“It’s fantastic, I am so excited about it. We can all come together online,” he explained.
“It will offer a chat forum where users can access advice from other people in the same position and also specialist organisations in the UK and US where the number of abduction cases are very high.
“After I got my son back people started emailing me from all over the world. Some wanted to say congratulations and others were in the same desperate situation I had been in and wanted help.
“Often I will be up until 4.30am chatting to people in America. When the site is finished everybody will be on to the site and once the charity is up and running we can start the fund-raising to help parents travel abroad.
“We want to raise awareness of child abduction around the world and what it does to the child and parents. There is no help and people are losing faith. Child abduction is the most evil crime a person can commit.”
Mr Felton has written his inspirational story with the help of a ghostwriter.
His book Scared of the Dark will be released next spring.
“It’s from when I first went to Thailand. It starts with me on a plane leaving Birmingham Airport for Bangkok, meeting Kim, my relationship, getting married, coming back to the UK and then Joe being abducted.”
Acknowledging the scars of his ordeal will remain forever, Mr Felton says helping others has aided the rebuilding of his life.
“This is helping now because I am helping other people, but when there was no help whatsoever that’s when you struggle to cope.”
He also plans a second book, With Help From the Angels.
“It’s about rebuilding and everything we have done to help other people – what’s right and what’s wrong with the system.”
Another victim who saw her sons taken away by her estranged husband is Birmingham doctor and public health specialist Dr Yusra Abo Hamed.
She warned UK authorities that her two young children were at risk of being abducted after her marriage to a fellow medic broke down. Her estranged husband fled from Birmingham with her UK-born sons in spite court orders and the children being on an alert register with border officials.
The Syrian-born mother received a chilling text after Sami, and Rami, then aged just seven and three, failed to return home after visiting their father in December 2008.
Dr Bassam Odeh said he had taken the boys away from her permanently. So began a love-tug nightmare which has seen Dr Hamed pursue her former partner and children across the Middle East at the cost of her job and family home in Selly Oak.
She was finally able to track them down in Dubai and win contact through the courts before their father spirited them away for a second time.
She said: “I lost my appeal in the court in Dubai. I believe the children are now in Jordan without a mother or a father because he is still in Dubai.
“I now have to go through the courts in Jordan. I will keep fighting, I have to.
"I think what Mr Felton is doing is a great idea, something needs to be done.
‘‘But there needs to be more unity in the courts, I had a court order in the UK but it didn’t stop him taking the children out of the country. I want the authorities in the UK to do more, to have the powers to extradite him to the UK.
“Even in the Middle East a court decision in Syria was not recognised in Dubai and all the time I am suffering. More needs to be done to highlight the gaps.”
Dr Bassem, a former haematology specialist at Birmingham City Hospital, was struck off by the GMC in February, found guilty of breaching a court order by removing the children from the UK.
In an email to the GMC he said: “With regard to ‘kidnapping my kids’, this is your UK term. I refuse this term.
“Yes, I removed my kids back to my home country to live for good, it is a simple human right.
“I am not intending to live or work in the UK. My kids’ right and custody are no longer under jurisdiction of the UK legal system from the time they left the country.
“They are Arabs and Muslims – we are subject to our law.”
Sharon Cooke, advice line manager at Reunite, which offers information and support to parents, said there had been a “considerable increase” in cases reported and added the charity was doing more to help.
She said: “It is for this reason that we have been focusing on raising awareness of parental child abduction and the preventative measures that parents can put in place to safeguard their children.
“Our outreach work has been crucial in reaching parents in the regions and ensuring they are supported and informed about the steps they can take to reduce the risk of abduction.
“This work has proven to be successful as for the first half of this year we have seen a 36 per cent increase in the number of inquiries relating to prevention measures.
"We will be further developing our outreach work programme over the coming months to ensure we continue to support and inform parents and families.
“Parental child abduction causes real harm to children and so it is encouraging to see an increasing number of parents contacting us for information to help safeguard their children.”
For more information, go to www.abductedangels.org