How one former YWCA shelter resident got her abducted son back
With the help of YWCA Toronto, Hope tracked down her abusive ex abroad and brought her son back to Toronto
When Hope* met her future husband, Jean, in their native Niger in 2008, their relationship was “like a dream.” They married in 2013, and two years later, had a son named Armand. By then they were living in France and building a life.
But soon, Jean would begin to regularly abuse Hope, both physically and through control. In France, he would not allow her to continue her business administration studies, which she had begun in Niger. Hope found a job as a supply teacher and discovered a love of teaching. She wanted to stay and pursue her education, but Jean wanted to return to Canada, where he had been on a student visa a few years prior. Without Hope’s knowledge or consent, Jean booked plane tickets for himself and Armand to Toronto in January 2017. He gave her an ultimatum: Resign from her teaching job or he would take their son to Canada without her. Jean then left with their child, which gave Hope no choice at all. She followed her abusive husband and her toddler to Toronto, arriving two days later to a city where she knew neither a soul nor the language.
Hope could not have imagined then that he would violate her trust in the same way a few years later, taking Armand away from her during a global pandemic, and sending her on an 18-month-long, transnational search for her son—one that, with the help of the police and YWCA Toronto, would not end until he was safely back in her arms.
Five days after Hope arrived in Canada, on what was her birthday, Jean beat her badly. He phoned the police, alleging he was the one who had been hit. She and her toddler son were shepherded into a police cruiser and taken to a local station. Once there, she spoke with a female officer who saw the bruises and strangulation marks on her neck and guessed the truth. “That was the beginning of my freedom,” she said. Police charged Jean, and Hope was referred to YWCA Toronto Women’s Shelter.
During her time at the shelter, Hope flourished in her independence and thrived with the support of the shelter’s staff. She had childcare for her son. She took English classes. She went back to school and found work. Most of all, Hope found community and the realization that she was not alone and that the abuse was not her fault.
Hope and Armand moved out in March 2018 into an apartment all their own. By then, she and Jean had come to an informal custody agreement that he would take Armand on weekends. Then, she got a great full-time job, so Jean started taking Armand during the week. He saw this as an opportunity to try to get Hope back and suggested they return to Niger as a family. Hope said no. Jean seemed to let it go, until one day in January 2020 when she dropped Armand off at his father’s apartment for his week of school. On Monday, Hope Facetimed with Armand and all was fine. On Tuesday, Jean would not turn on the video. On Wednesday she could not reach them at all. On Thursday, she got a call from the school saying her son had not arrived.
The international search for her son
When Hope realized that Armand had disappeared, she called the police. Because Jean was the child’s father and they had no formal, court-ordered custody agreement, the case was not being treated as a child abduction. “I started to blame myself,” she said. The police managed to confirm that her ex had taken her son to France.
After two years of being out on her own, Hope called YWCA Toronto Women’s Shelter for help and began researching ways to get her son back. After a slew of rejections, she managed to find a lawyer who was trained in international child abduction cases and willing to help. Hope also had to get a lawyer in France, who could help her secure a temporary custody agreement.
After an uphill battle, she secured the agreement and traveled to France, full of hope that she would be able to bring Armand back with her. They met at a French police station in March, where her son tearfully asked, “Where were you?” The French police, however, would not honour the temporary custody agreement. “I was heartbroken, and I wanted to give up,” Hope recalls. She had to fly back to Toronto without her son. By the time she got home, the global pandemic had set in, grinding all travel and in-person activities to a halt.
By April, government officials in Canada managed to set a prosecution hearing to enact something called the Hague Convention, an international treaty struck to ensure children who have been abducted and taken to a different country by a parent are quickly returned home. They deliberated and ruled in her favour. Hope was able to pay for the enforcement of this order by accessing the Julia M. Ruby Fund, a financial grant administered by YWCA Toronto to help women and children fleeing violence. Jean appealed but once he lost, a warrant was issued stating Armand was only allowed to fly to Canada. Throughout this time, Hope would text and call Jean daily, pleading with him to see their son. Those messages went ignored.
With the help of YWCA Toronto, Hope boarded a plane to France in summer 2020, yet again hoping she could bring Armand home with her. Once more, she was turned away and told by the French police that Jean was a good dad, with good intentions. Her court order held no sway.
Luckily, Hope had a strong ally at the Toronto Police, an officer named Paul. They devised a plan involving Interpol that did not originally succeed. Jean and Armand were on the move; the authorities traced Jean to Belgium and then to Algeria. From there, the pair went off the grid. Hope was distraught. It was not until November that she went before the Court of Cassation, the highest level of court in France. Hope retained a new lawyer that was trained in this specialty. The court ruled in January 2021 that again, a temporary custody order must be granted and that Armand could only fly to Canada. The outstanding issue? No one knew where Jean and Armand were since fleeing France months earlier.
Reunited at last
By chance, Hope happened upon some good intel: Jean and Armand were back in Niger. She notified the authorities and hired a private investigator to trace their movements. “I wanted to go get him, but I had to get passports and pending ID,” she said. This was in March 2021. Erica Fisico, a community development worker at YWCA Toronto Women’s Shelter, was always available no matter the time of day, and helped Hope get her paperwork in order. By May, Hope was ready to return to her home country to get her son.
Throughout this period, Hope had been leaning on her mother in Niger for emotional support. She remembers talking to her mom the week before traveling; they were both excited to see one another and thrilled at the prospect of finally reuniting Hope and Armand. But in the days before her arrival, Hope’s mother had a heart attack and passed away. She buried her mother on her son’s birthday.
In the midst of her grief, Hope pressed on and planned with the local police to retrieve Armand from her ex. Unfortunately, Jean caught wind of the plan and vacated before they arrived. Hope returned to her source and found out exactly where he was. She redirected the police to this new location—and they finally found Armand.
The RCMP paid for Hope and Armand’s first-class tickets to get them back to Toronto in early September 2021.
“When the plane hit the tarmac in Toronto, I started to cry. I started to think of my mom,” Hope says. Her mom would have been so proud and relieved that Armand had made it safely back to her, she thought.
A new life in Toronto
Back in Toronto, and once again with help from YWCA Toronto, Hope and Armand set out to create a new routine—finding a school and a subsidy for before- and after-school childcare. YWCA Toronto Women’s Shelter marked her success with a cake, and bought clothes and toys for Armand, a backpack filled with school supplies, gift cards for groceries, and recreational passes for movies and the local aquarium. Erica checked on her every day and, along with the shelter manager Carol Hines-DaCosta, was her emotional support through the entire saga.
All Hope needs to do now is secure full, permanent custody of Armand—an endeavor that remains complicated as Hope tries to find a new lawyer who can represent her international case. In the meantime, she is taking university courses to achieve her long-term goal of becoming a high school French teacher.
“My hope is to live in peace and have a good life here in Canada,” she said. “I want Armand to do whatever he wants to do in life. I want to teach him to respect women and all people.”
Hope wants others who are facing abuse to know that it is not their fault, that they have a right to live their lives in peace too, and that YWCA Toronto can help others on a similar journey. She discovered herself through this process, and learned just how determined, resilient and successful she could be in protecting herself and the wellbeing of her son.
*All names and identifying details changed to protect anonymity
If you would like to support women like Hope this holiday season, please consider donating to YWCA Toronto’s Give Change campaign and help us put an end to gender-based violence in our city.