A seven-year-old fostered girl who was abducted by her biological mother and taken out of the country has been returned safely to Malta, Family and Children's Rights Minister Michael Falzon told reporters on Tuesday.

The girl was brought back after the Maltese government grappled with a  months' long legal battle in the Maltese and UK courts.

The girl's biological mother had originally agreed for her daughter to be placed in foster care in 2014. The girl lived with a foster family in Malta for six years, until October 2020, when the Maltese court recommended that she spends more time with her biological mother. The girl was to start spending weekends at her mother's.

On October 9, 2020, the girls' biological mother picked up her daughter from the foster family for the weekend, agreeing to bring her back two days later, but she never did.

The news of the girl's disappearance caused a public outcry when it was first reported and a month later, a public vigil was held as the foster parents appealed for information about the young girl, who had lived with them since she was six months old. 

It turned out the mother fled with her daughter to Paris, using another child's passport, which was given to her at the airport. In Paris, she met her boyfriend, who had flown there some days before.

Crossed channel under dangerous circumstances

As it ordered the girl's return to Malta, the High Court of England and Wales described how the mother, her boyfriend and the girl "crossed the English Channel under dangerous circumstances in a rigid-hulled inflatable boat on the night of November 8".

The girl's foster carer reported the girl missing to the police the day after her mother was supposed to take her back, and being her legal guardian, the government tried to trace the child. But the search proved incredibly difficult because the mother's act was not unlawful.

"Until then, Maltese law did not consider a mother fleeing with her biological child as an illegal abduction. So we couldn't ask for a European arrest warrant," said lawyer and Labour MP Andy Ellul.

"We have since amended the law to make the act illegal."

The girl was found in England later in November, but before it could fight for her return, the Maltese government had to file a case, asking the civil court to recognise the mother's act as an illegal child abduction.

In February last year, the court acknowledged the abduction as illegal and consequently, proceedings were filed in the High Court of England and Wales. The girl was placed in foster care of a local authority in London and she returned to Malta on Tuesday.

Minister Falzon said she is already living with her 'placement' family, but would not clarify whether it was the same foster carer that she had lived with up till her abduction.

The Foundation for Social Welfare Services CEO Alfred Grixti said the operation was the result of a team effort from the police, intelligence services, Malta's Embassy in the UK, and Identity Malta, among others.

* Although Falzon named the girl, Times of Malta has chosen not to do so, to respect her privacy.

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