By INÊS LOPES firstname.lastname@example.org
Irish mother Candice Gannon could not contain her tears of joy as she was finally reunited with her eight-year-old daughter Ellie in the Algarve on Tuesday morning, after seven long months without seeing her. Giselle Candice Kelly Silva (also known as Ellie), who was handed over to the authorities by her Portuguese grandmother on Monday, had been missing since last August when her Portuguese father defied a court ruling to return the child to her mother, her sole custodial parent.
Ellie’s mother’s lawyer Spencer Dohner, a specialist in criminal law, told the Algarve Resident on Monday that the child had been staying at an undisclosed location in the north of Portugal and that she was handed over to the Polícia Judiciária by her grandmother, Ana Maria.
Speaking from a hotel in Estoi, where the family had retreated to after collecting little Ellie from the Refúgio Aboim Ascensão children’s home in Faro, Candice Gannon, 28, told the Algarve Resident on Tuesday (February 12) that this was the happiest day in her life and that she was looking forward to going back to normal family life.
“I am so relieved to hear my little girl call me ‘mummy’ again! She is delighted to be back and is asking when we are going home,” said Candice.
The Portuguese authorities ensured Ellie’s time in care went as smoothly as possible and avoided exposing her to police uniforms, vehicles and sirens so as not to scare her.
Her stepfather Philip Gannon said Ellie, clearly exhausted by the ordeal, had slept for 11 hours and ate two nourishing meals while at the Refúgio before being returned to her mother, who picked her up hours later.
Due to difficulties in coordinating flights on Monday, the couple and their two-and-a-half-year old daughter Olivia, Ellie’s stepsister, only arrived in Lisbon just before midnight, after a lengthy journey via France from Dublin, where they had been staying. “We really wanted to see her that same day, but it was impossible as it was so late,” said Philip.
Despite the apparent attempt by the authorities to protect Ellie from any further distress, her stepfather was outraged that the courts had decided to question the child without her mother’s consent. “We know she was heard by the courts and are not happy that this was done without her mother’s permission,” he said, however, adding that he just wants to see an end to this nightmare.
This family’s nightmare began in August last year when Ellie visited her father, Filipe Silva, 35, on July 15 at his home in Vilamoura, for what was meant to be a two-week holiday.
But when he defied a court order to return Ellie to her mother on July 31, Candice had to take the legal route to get her daughter back.
Filipe Silva made a voluntary appearance in court in September when he was ordered to hand over Ellie to her mother. He promised to fetch the girl but then disappeared with her.
A national warrant for the arrest of Filipe Silva and the safe return of his daughter was issued on September 14 by the Juvenile and Family Court of Faro (Tribunal de Familia e Menores de Faro), but the nightmare was far from over.
Information on the alleged abduction was disseminated to the EU authorities under the Schengen Exchange of Information agreement.
Candice had no contact with her daughter and had no idea where she was for seven months. Her husband said: “The police could only act following court instructions. It was very frustrating because we felt no one was doing anything to help us find Ellie, who could be in danger.
“We only have the media to thank for, the Algarve Resident included, for exposing Ellie’s case. We believe that exposure by the press has been instrumental in getting the authorities to up the status of their investigation.”
Filipe Silva was located near Lisbon after a search of six months and arrested last Friday, February 8.
After a 13-hour interrogation on Saturday, he still refused to reveal Ellie’s whereabouts to the courts in Faro, which led to a judge’s decision to remand him in custody at Olhão prison. His mother Ana Maria had told members of the press outside the court on Saturday that the child was well but refused to say more.
Filipe Silva was released on Monday, after spending two nights in prison, and is now awaiting charges.
The entrepreneur, who runs a tourist apartment complex in Vilamoura, was detained after a concentrated police investigation, supported by the media and an internet appeal on Facebook which attracted nearly 10,000 people offering sympathy and support.
The internet search campaign was instigated by Candice, who claims that the child’s father is “mentally unstable”.
Candice said: “No parent should have to go through what I went through for the past seven months. Something must be done to ensure that this never happens again. It will be a long, long time before I ever let Ellie out of my sight again.”
Candice and her husband Philip Gannon say that they prefer Ellie to tell them, “in her own time”, where she was and who she was with. “I just hope that all those who assisted in this atrocity against an eight year old little girl are brought to Justice,” said the mother, adding that her daughter was clearly affected by the ordeal as she appeared to be a little confused and emotional earlier this morning at the Refúgio.
When asked about their plans for the future, Candice said: “We are going to take a break now as a family and enjoy every second together.
I have never seen Olivia so excited. It is pure joy to see them both playing with each other again.”
Philip added: “We can’t place Ellie in a school just yet after all that has happened. We will do whatever is best for her in the end, but we just want our lives to return to normal. We will be returning to Madeira on Sunday.”
Spencer Dohner has been working tirelessly over the past months to ensure that these criminal complaints are properly processed, investigated and enforced in accordance with the decisions of the civil court. He said: “Kidnapping is a very serious offence in Portugal and if convicted Mr. Silva and anybody else accused of being an accessory to this crime may face up to 10 years in prison.
“The investigation into Filipe Silva is being conducted under the regime of secrecy of justice (Segredo de Justiça) and therefore the full details of this case are classified and will only be disclosed when an accusation has been made.” This is expected soon by the public prosecutor.
Filipe Silva, who cannot leave the country and has to report daily to the police station, now faces a court hearing on the alleged charge of kidnapping his daughter.