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Parental abductions cause significant mental health effects in children involved -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The dramatic fallout of an international child abduction gone wrong has gripped the headlines in recent weeks with a mother and a TV crew hauled before a court in Beirut and the hired hand still languishing in a Lebanese jail. The focus of these events is almost always on the adults, but the children caught up in parental abductions and retrievals can be badly affected - not just at the time, but for years after. Tonight, 7.30 hears first-hand how adults kidnapped as children feel about what happened to them and what the latest research shows about the long-term impact. Tracy Bowden has the story.

RAY MARTIN, JOURNALIST (archive footage, 1980): From inside the cafe, 60 Minutes' hidden camera catches the next dramatic moment when Kayleen makes her move. This is what it's all been about.

TRACY BOWDEN, REPORTER: It's 1980. In a crowded cafe in Barcelona, Kayleen Thorne grabs her little boy and runs.

KAYLEEN THORNE (archive footage, 1980): I thought, "Oh, my God," and," This is it." I just ran into the crowd of people. I was shaking all over. So I went - ran over to the cab. I was just puffing and panting. I was petrified.

TRACY BOWDEN: That boy was Gaudi Rubio-Thorne.

GAUDI RUBIO-THORNE: It's often been said that I was the ball in the park between a mother and a father. So it's their game; I'm just the object. It encompasses your whole life and it's - it's part of you. It's who you are.

TRACY BOWDEN: Gaudi, born in Launceston, was just a toddler when he was abducted by his Spanish-born father.

KAYLEEN THORNE: He rang me. He was already in Spain.

TRACY BOWDEN: What did he say about your son?

KAYLEEN THORNE: He said he's fine. He said, "He's here with me. He's fine. We're staying in Spain."

GAUDI RUBIO-THORNE: He stole me. It was done in a fashion that wasn't acceptable.

RAY MARTIN (archive footage, 1980): The Australian Government these days takes a pretty dim view of any parent after a divorce case who snatches a child ...

TRACY BOWDEN: Reporter Ray Martin and his crew helped out as Kayleen Thorne staged a daring operation to snatch back her son.

RAY MARTIN (archive footage, 1980): The next stage of this real life intrigue now begins.

KAYLEEN THORNE: We were frightened, but it's something you do. You just do it. It's your mother instinct.

TRACY BOWDEN: Ever since, Gaudi Rubio-Thorne has struggled.

GAUDI RUBIO-THORNE: I had a lot of anger, substance abuses, definite abandonment issues. I love my mother very much. I take it out on her. I take it out on my partners, my girlfriends. And, yeah, I was left, even though I was taken. There was something - it was like there's something that was taken from me.

TRACY BOWDEN: How much have you seen your dad in your life?

GAUDI RUBIO-THORNE: Very patchy. It was only like three or four times growing up. And then when I was 17, nearly 18, I went to Spain and spent three months with him. He wasn't used to being a father and I wasn't used to having one.

NEWSREADER: The Canadian mother who kidnapped her children back from her estranged Australian husband in Lebanon has made her first public experience.

MELISSA ENGDAHL: I told them that they were going to come with me and that we could talk to daddy about it later.

HANNAH ENGDAHL: You're hurting your child. It's not healthy to take them away from their other parent. They need both their parents in their life.

TRACY BOWDEN: Hannah and Cedar Engdahl live at the foot of the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary in Canada with their mother Melissa, but their father is far away in Australia.

HANNAH ENGDAHL: He wasn't here for my school plays when I was in elementary school and he's not here now and he probably won't be here for my graduation. So I'm missing out on really having him here with me and present in my life.

TRACY BOWDEN: In 2006, Melissa Engdahl's ex-husband took the girls from Canada to visit his Lebanese-Australian family in Sydney, but instead of bringing them home, he took them to Lebanon at the height of the Israel-Hezbollah war.

MELISSA ENGDAHL: Sheer panic. I immediately became nauseous. I recall running into my backyard and I could not stop crying.

TRACY BOWDEN: After exhausting all legal options in Australia, Canada and Lebanon, Melissa sought the help of a team of ex-soldiers to retrieve her girls.

MELISSA ENGDAHL: I went down and walked out into the field when we saw them playing and I just explained to them that we were gonna be going home.

HANNAH ENGDAHL: Most kids are told that their other parent didn't want them and that's extremely damaging to a child at a young age or at any age, knowing that your parent didn't want you or being told that.

MELISSA ENGDAHL: Hannah in particular has had therapy with her dad that her dad participated in. I thought that that would be an important way for at least her to gain some understanding around the situation in a protected environment and supported environment.

TRACY BOWDEN: Melissa's daughters are now 12 and 15. Their father lives in Australia and while they can visit him, he can't come to Canada because there are outstanding criminal charges over the abduction.

HANNAH ENGDAHL: I'm not able to come home after school with an honour roll certificate saying, "Look, Dad, look what I got," and have him give me a hug and say, "Oh, I'm so proud of you."

ANN WOLLNER, LAWYER & CHILD CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: Return doesn't fix the situation. What we do know is nothing is ever the same again after there's been an abduction.

TRACY BOWDEN: The most comprehensive study into the long-term effects of parental child abduction found that more than 70 per cent of the children involved report significant effects on their mental health. Lawyer and psychologist Dr Ann Wollner says in some cases abduction by a parent can be just as damaging as being taken by a stranger.

ANN WOLLNER: They can have impacts on them that can affect their learning ability, their future relationships, their ability to regulate their own emotions, so they can get depression, anxiety and long term, they can have great difficulties in establishing relationships.

TRACY BOWDEN: Melissa Engdahl says her children have been very aware of the recent 60 Minutes retrieval operation gone wrong in Lebanon.

MELISSA ENGDAHL: I think it was quite distressing for the girls to hear that this was still going on and this is happening to other kids. So, oftentimes parents are making these decisions in moments of extreme emotion and the impact on the kids is - it compounds over the years.

TRACY BOWDEN: And do you think it was the right thing for Gaudi?

KAYLEEN THORNE: Absolutely. Absolutely. He's better off here than over there.

TRACY BOWDEN: Gaudi Rubio-Thorne says he's still working through the fallout from what happened to him more than 35 years ago.

GAUDI RUBIO-THORNE: It's definitely influenced the way I think, the way I view the world, the way I interact with others. And it starts with pain. It's pain. It's ... how do you make a positive out of hurt? Yeah, I think it's a long process. But getting there.

LEIGH SALES: Tracy Bowden with that report, produced by Jodie Noyce.