Parental child abduction is all too common. When we think of child kidnapping, we usually think of stereotypical kidnappings in which children are snatched by total strangers. However, children are at far greater risk from their own parents or other relatives. The anger and desperation of some parents is making victims of children in one of the most devastating crimes of modern times.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has reported that family abductions are one of the most common reasons for a child to be reported missing and that over 200,000 cases of family kidnappings are reported each year in the United States. Yet these figures may represent merely the tip of the iceberg, as experts believe that many cases of parental kidnapping go unreported.
The rise in family breakup and divorce and the ease of international travel have led to an increase in parental abductions and it is a problem faced by nearly every nation in the world. Yet awareness and understanding of the problem remains patchy at best.
Worryingly, many people do not even realize that parental abduction is a crime. They are unaware of the detrimental effects of this type of kidnapping on the child and most people believe that these abductions are easily and quickly resolved with the help of law enforcement and government agencies. Other common misconceptions are that fathers are more likely to abduct their children and that, in cases of international child abduction, the child is mostly taken to Asia or the Middle East. The sad reality is that this is a crime that can affect anyone at any time and in any place. Cases are notoriously difficult to resolve and leave children with emotional scars that can last a lifetime.
A desperate act
The reasons a parent might want to abduct their own child are manyfold, yet in every case it is an act born out of desperation. The most common trigger for this harrowing situation is relationship breakdown and custodial disputes amongst parents. Parents who fear they will not be granted custody or will be prevented from seeing their children often take matters into their own hands and see taking their child away with them as the only option open to them. In other cases the bitterness of divorce and the ending of a relationship can lead one parent to want to inflict the harshest punishment or revenge possible on the other parent – denying them access to their own child. In many cases where the mother is the perpetrator, taking the child and fleeing is seen as the only way out of an abusive relationship.
Recent years have seen a significant increase in international child abductions…[and]even with the existence of The Hague Convention, it can still take years for international child abduction cases to be resolved.
Abduction across borders
The ease of international movement and the breaking down of physical and cultural barriers has had a big impact on international romance, with more and more marriages taking place between people of different nationalities. Whilst these international unions undoubtedly enrich our world, when things go wrong it can have devastating consequences on families and especially on children.
When a child under the age of 18 is taken out of the country they normally reside in and held in another country against the wishes of the (other) custodial parent, it is considered a crime in most countries. Recent years have seen a significant increase in international child abductions and it is a crime that is not easily resolved, despite the existence of The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, a multilateral treaty that aims to ensure the prompt return of internationally abducted children from one member country to another.
Although 94 states have currently signed The Hague Convention, it is still a notoriously difficult and costly procedure to have a child returned to their country of residence. Even if a country has ratified the Convention, local courts will often sympathize with the abducting parent. This is especially true of countries that follow Shariah law or are culturally biased towards either the mother or the father. In addition, there are many countries who have not signed the convention and parents sometimes take their children to these countries, knowing that it will be harder for the other parent to have the child returned.
The sad reality is that, even with the existence of The Hague Convention, it can still take years for international child abduction cases to be resolved. Add to this the enormous costs involved and it’s easy to see why many parents simply give up, leaving children to grow up in a state of perpetual uncertainty.
(P)arental abduction is considered a form of child abuse…Most children feel an acute sense of abandonment because they can’t understand why the left behind parent can’t simply find them and take them home.
Parental child abduction can cause a lifetime of pain and anguish for the ‘left behind’ parent. Yet, as in most parental disputes, it is often the abducted child who is the ultimate victim. Due to the detrimental effects on children, parental abduction is considered a form of child abuse by many experts.
Most children who are abducted by a parent suffer emotionally or physically to some extent. Aside from being suddenly uprooted from everything that is familiar to them, many abducted children are made to believe that the other parent has abandoned them or doesn’t care about them anymore. Most children feel an acute sense of abandonment because they can’t understand why the left behind parent can’t simply find them and take them home.
In her article Parental Kidnapping: a New Form of Child Abuse, Dr Dorothy Huntington asserts that parental child abduction is a form of child abuse and lists some of the detrimental effects on the child as: depression; loss of community; loss of stability, security, and trust; excessive fearfulness, even of ordinary occurrences; loneliness; anger; helplessness; disruption in identity formation; and fear of abandonment.
In addition to the emotional effects on the child, many of which impact on the child’s adult life and future relationships, there are also a number of practical deleterious effects on the child, for example the lack of access to education, medical care and child protection agencies.
Many abducting parents, caught up in their own emotional turmoil, are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the traumatic impact of their actions on their children.
Parents should be aware that (child abduction) can occur at any time and to anybody. However, parents who are going through a bitter breakup or are in the midst of a custody battle should be especially vigilant.
In many cases there are warning signs that a child may be at risk of parental child abduction. Parents should be aware that this crime can occur at any time and to anybody. However, parents who are going through a bitter breakup or are in the midst of a custody battle should be especially vigilant. Your child could be at risk of abduction if your partner (the other parent):
- has previously tried to take the child
- has threatened to take the child
- has tried to harm you, the child or him/herself
- has a history of violent behavior
- shows hostility or resentment towards you or your family
- harasses you or is obsessive about you
- tries to come between you and the child or tries to turn the child against you
- is angry about the breakdown of your relationship
- is angry about a custodial decision
- has citizenship of, or strong ties to, another country
- shows an interest in moving or returning to another country
- has made major life changes such as selling a house or quitting a job
- has liquidated their assets and/or closed bank accounts
- is financially independent or financially supported by relatives
- lacks emotional or financial ties to the country you reside in
- is hiding or destroying documents
- has applied for a passport or visa for themselves and/or the child
- has tried to obtain documents pertaining to the child, such as medical and school records
- has previously violated any court orders
How to prevent a parental abduction
If any of the warning signs above sound familiar, or if you feel in any way uneasy about your partner or their behavior, it is worth taking some preventative action to avoid future heartache. Here are some of the things you can do to prevent your child being taken against your wishes:
- Be informed about parental child abduction and The Hague Convention. Familiarize yourself with your country’s laws on child abduction and know your custodial rights.
- Make sure that you have a legally-binding custody agreement in place if you break up with your spouse/partner.
- Keep up-to-date records of your child’s appearance, height, and weight.
- Keep copies of your child’s birth certificate and passport.
- Have addresses and contact numbers for all friends and family, including your (ex) partner’s.
- Try to get your partner to agree to mediation or counseling.
- Place your child’s passport on an immigration watchlist.
- Teach your child how to make (long distance/international) phone calls and make sure they know your number.
- Before allowing your child to travel internationally, make sure you are familiar with the custodial laws of the relevant country and consider how easy it would be to find and return your child.
- Most importantly: make sure your child knows that you love them and would never abandon them.
What to do if your child is abducted by the other parent
If the worst should happen and your child is taken by the other parent, you should take immediate action:
- Contact the police and child protection authorities
- Gather documents
- Inform family and friends
- Tell the child’s school/daycare and doctor
- Add your child’s passport to the immigration watchlist
- If your child has been taken abroad and you know the country they are in, contact consular services in that country
- Contact a lawyer
- Enlist the help of child abduction organizations
As with all cases of kidnapping, the goal should be the timely return of the abducted child. Being prepared for the worst and acting swiftly will make it more difficult for the abducting parent to hold on to the child. Furthermore, if the situation can be quickly resolved, both the child and the left behind parent will be spared weeks, months or years of anguish.