What is a parent’s worst nightmare? Just about every parent will agree the most terrifying scenario possible is your child is abducted. The horror of  parental kidnapping, your child missing without any idea where they are, if they are safe, or if you will ever see them again is almost unimaginable. The anguish of being separated from your child is intensified by the torture of not knowing.

Most abducted children are taken by a family member

While all parents understand the fear of child abduction, many don’t realize that most kidnappings in the United States are not perpetrated by strangers. Kidnapping by a relative referred to as “family kidnapping,” accounts for forty-nine percent of all abductions. Family kidnapping is usually committed by parents, and overwhelmingly by female family members (forty-three percent). According to the Justice Department, approximately 155,800 children are kidnapped in “serious” parental abductions every year. These cases vary widely. Some parents abscond with their kids across state lines. Others take their children and leave the country. (Parents Magazine, 2017) (Washington Post, 2017)

Parental kidnapping and the Law

The federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act outlaws parental abduction across all states by applying the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution to all child-custody cases. This means that while custody laws vary by state, custody decisions made in one state’s court must be upheld in all other states. This law ensures you are protected by the terms of your custody agreement even if your ex-wife leaves your state.

Parental Abduction is against state law in every U.S. state, in addition to violating federal law. Parental kidnapping is when one parent takes, withholds, or conceals his or her child(ren) in defiance of a court-mandated custody order. This can apply to both visitation and custody rights.

When a parent abducts a child, or children, to circumvent a custody battle or decision, the law is less clear. Some states do not recognize one parent leaving with a child, or children, as a criminal act if no formal custody order is in place and the parents are not living together. However, many states have mandated the abduction of a child across state lines by a parent as a crime, even without a custody order. It is therefore critical to seek professional legal advice, or do your research, to determine how the law in your state applies to parental kidnapping if you and your ex-wife do not have a court-sanctioned custody agreement.

Legal Consequences

If your ex-wife absconds with your child in violation of your custody order hefty fines, jail time, loss of custody, loss of visitation and termination of parental rights are all potential legal judgments. Additional legal penalties for crossing state lines can also be weighed. If she flees the country, then things become less clear. Some countries participate in international treaties, such as The Hague Convention on International Child Abduction, and will cooperate with U.S. law enforcement to try and recover your missing children.

Countries with no existing international agreements pose a greater difficulty. If you suspect or know, your ex has left the country with your kid(s), contact an attorney specializing in international custody disputes that can help you leverage political pressure and international resources for the safe return of your family.

Five Important Facts about Parental Kidnapping

If your ex-wife refuses to show up with your child for visitation or shared custody, she is violating your custody order. While a mix of intense emotions will surely overcome you as you realize she is withholding your child and may have left the area, state, or country; the key to a positive outcome is to keep your composure so you can act quickly and strategically.

The sooner you act, the better your chances of getting your kids home as soon as possible. Knowledge is power and armed with these five facts you stand a much better chance at dealing with parental abduction in a way that will lead to the safe recovery of your children.

1. Know your Rights

Law enforcement may try to get you to wait and see if your ex returns with your child before taking action. Some officers are inclined to treat a parental abduction as a family dispute and not a crime. It is not unheard of for the police to put off taking a report or initiating an investigation. They may try to convince you to wait until your ex-wife transports your child to another state.

While patience may be a virtue in many situations, this is not one of those! If you are asked to wait, advise the officer you are aware the 1990 National Child Search and Assistance Act prohibits law enforcement agencies from creating waiting periods before accepting a missing-child report, regardless of custody status, and that The International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993 and the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act of 2006 all require they act immediately.

2. Know which Agencies to Contact

There are a number of resources to help you recover your kids. While your first instinct may be to hunt down your family yourself, your best bet is to enlist the expertise of professional agencies. Get ahold of them immediately. Timing is critical.

  1. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children http://www.missingkids.org/theissues/familyabduction (This is the organization that issues Amber Alerts)
  2. The FBI (your local field office): https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices. The nearest FBI International office: https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/legal-attache-offices
  1. IF your child is taken out of the country, you can contact the U.S. State Department International Parental Child Abduction.

3. File a Complaint for Contempt

If your ex-wife is returning your kids late, missing some visitations, or otherwise playing fast and loose with the custody rules, filing a complaint for contempt can be a good move to head her off before she takes more extreme measures and decides to leave with them and not return at all. This complaint asks the Probate and Family Court to order the other parent to obey your custody order. An attorney can help you file this with the court. If the court decides the other parent is disobeying the order, it can put them in jail until they do obey it.

4. Be prepared

If you suspect your ex is capable, and maybe even likely, of taking off with your child, there are steps you can take right now. If delay is your enemy in the safe return of your family, preparation is your greatest ally. Having a few critical things in order can make all the difference in deploying help at a moment’s notice. Don’t wait until you in the midst of the terror and confusion of a kidnapping to get your ducks in a row.

  1. Have recent photos of your kid(s) and your ex-wife easily accessible.
  2. Have a copy (or a few copies) of your custody order.
  3. Have a list of all daycare providers, schools, and after-school programs in case the police want to check with them before declaring your child missing.
  4. Have a detailed list of your ex-wife’s transportation and personally identifying information. This should include a description of her car(s), license plate(s), who she may be traveling with, credit card and banking info, and any other pertinent information that may lead to her whereabouts.
  5. Get a Parental Abduction Search Checklist

MissingKids.CA offers a thorough, easy-to-follow pamphlet that details each step to take in the event your worst nightmare becomes a reality. You will likely find it hard to focus and think on your feet when you are faced with a parent’s most menacing fear. With this packet at the ready, all you will have to do is follow the steps laid out for you.

The wise adage “Forewarned is forearmed” applies to parental kidnapping. When you are aware of a danger, you can adequately prepare to ensure the best outcome. As a parent, your priority is to protect your children and keep them safe. While there is no way to be with your kids every moment, there are some powerful precautions you can take today that may save them from future danger.


(c) Can Stock Photo / Bialasiewicz

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