Parental child abduction victimizes more than 354,000 U.S. families each year. This crime is widely misunderstood by those not directly affected by the crime, including some law enforcement and government officials, who are under the misconception that children are inherently safe when they are with an abducting parent. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Dr. Dorothy Huntington, an early leader in parental child abduction issues, best describes what parental child abduction fully encompasses, in her 1982 article entitled, Parental Kidnapping: A New Form of Child Abuse. She states, “Child stealing is child abuse…..Children are used as both objects and weapons in the struggle between the parents which leads to the brutalization of the children psychologically, specifically destroying their sense of trust in the world around them…..We must re-conceptualize child stealing as child abuse of the most flagrant sort.” (Huntington, 1982, p. 7)
Parental Child Abduction often scars children and their left behind families for life. In addition to psychological trauma, children often suffer from inadequate schooling, poor nutrition, unstable lifestyles, and neglect. The abducting parent poisons the child against the left-behind parent until the abducted children believe the left-behind parent is either dead or will harm them if found.
Parental Child Abduction is not an act done out of love for the child. The primary goal of the parental child abductor is to get even with the other parent. The abductor victimizes the left-behind family by depriving them of visitation or custodial rights and in the process psychologically torturing them with worry and grief. Statistically, half of parental child abductors have criminal records and most have a history of violent behavior, substance abuse or emotional disturbance. Gender doesn’t matter. Both fathers and mothers abduct equally and 15% of the time the abduction is with force or violence. Half of family abductions occur before the relationship between parents end while half occur 2 or more years after divorce or separation, usually after parents develop new households, new relationships, move away or are frustrated with the legal system. Once abducted, the children are at the mercy of the abducting parent, who, in hiding, avoids scrutiny by police, doctors, counselors, and child protective services.
The victimization that children suffer when taken by a parent is no less than that of children taken by a stranger, yet the response of society varies considerably. It is this variance that lessens the chance of aggressive investigation by law enforcement or from the public intervening. The left behind families are left in a constant state of emotional turmoil, never knowing if their children are safe, where they are, or whether they’ll ever see them again.
Even if a family is lucky enough to find their children, life is never the same again. Families must start over, attend counseling (sometimes for years and years) and in many states must face allowing the children to have visitation with the abductor again and the possibility of re-abduction.
Education, awareness and stronger penalties for parental child abductors are key in the fight to keep children safe and deter would be parental abductors. Unfortunately, the process has been slow across the 50 United States. Some states do not even recognize parental child abduction as a crime while others treat it with the severity it deserves. Until the justice systems in all 50 states uniformly handles the issue with severe punishment, the lives of innocent children will continue to be destroyed in mounting numbers.