According to the Department of Justice, about 200,000 family abductions occur each year and that 6 percent of these last for longer than six months.
The children of parents waging a custody battle, or those arguing about visitation are most at risk of parental kidnapping, which happens when a parent kidnaps and conceals a child for any length of time. It is a serious crime.
Moreover, parental abduction is child abuse because it abruptly severs the relationship between a child and parent. Life on the run for a child abducted by a family member is dangerous because over half of family abductors have a history of violence, substance abuse, or a criminal record. In addition, children are often deprived of schooling and medical care, and they learn to distrust the very authorities that could help them. “Because of the harmful effects on children, parental kidnapping has been characterized as a form of child abuse,” reports Patricia Hoff, Legal Director for the Parental Abduction Training and Dissemination Project, American Bar Association on Children and the Law. “Abducted children suffer emotionally and sometimes physically at the hands of abductor-parents. Many children are told the other parent is dead or no longer loves them. Uprooted from family and friends, abducted children often are given new names by their abductor-parents and instructed not to reveal their real names or where they lived before.”
Even with mental health counseling (and especially without), the sudden loss of a parent can have a serious effect on the child for years. According to one survey of abducted children, 16% of abducted children experience emotional harm, 4% are physically abused, and 1% are sexually abused. Other research found reactions to abduction include nightmares, fear of doors and windows, bedwetting (depending on age), fear of authority and strangers, anger at abductor and left-behind parent, depression, anxiety, and school and peer problems. Problems for many adults persist into their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Such abuse factors into custody decisions made as part of a divorce. Some experts use the term “parental alienation” to describe the potential negative impact on child victims. Regardless of the specific terms designed to illustrate the effects of parental child abduction, children are the resultant casualties. If one parent abducts a child after the other has filed for divorce, the law tries to find and return the child to the home state that decides custody. In most states, judges consider interference with the relationship between a child and the other parent. Child abduction usually guarantees that a court in the home state will not give custody to the parent who took the child and fled.
If the parent does not return the child voluntarily, the abduction can be a felony. The potential for harm is so great that many states prosecute family abduction as a felony. Crossing state lines can result in charges of kidnapping.
Parents kidnap their own children, according to family abduction experts, to force reconciliation with the left-behind parent or punish the other parent; from fear of losing custody or visitation rights; and in rare cases, to protect the child from a parent who is perceived to molest, abuse, or neglect the child. The threat of abduction should always be taken seriously, but often the warning signs are more subtle.
Abduction of a child in divorce is common. State courts don’t reverse custody orders established in other states, but this does not deter an unhappy parent tempted to take matters into his or her own hands in hopes of a different ruling.
The child’s home state has jurisdiction over custody. When parents divorce, they complete an affidavit that tells the court where the child has lived for the last several years and usually the state where the parent is filing for divorce is the only state that can make custody decisions.
An exception exists in cases of danger when a parent believes his or her child is in danger and the parent leaves to protect the child. Even federal law recognizes that this is sometimes necessary. The parent would most likely need the help of an attorney to prove the case in a way that will stand up in court.
International Child Abduction is kidnapping. The worst kind of parental abduction occurs when a parent leaves the country with the child. In some cases, international law protects against this as well. When this happens, some countries have a pact to return a child to the child’s home country. A divorce lawyer can help because the law surrounding divorce, child custody and parental abduction is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique.