Parental Abduction – When Parents Kidnap Their Own


By: Carma Haley 

An estimated 355,000 children are abducted from their homes each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). These children can go days, weeks, months or even years with no contact from anyone except their abductor. And many of these children are not taken by strangers: They are abducted by their own parents.

There are some who claim kidnapping their own children is the only option they have, but what about the other parent — and what about the child?



Mark Samrodan, spokesman for NCMEC, says parental kidnapping is the practice of a noncustodial parent taking a child from the custodial parent from one state to another without court permission or in violation of court orders obtained through a divorce or custody hearing. The practice of parental kidnapping is forbidden by both federal and state laws in the absence of a provable emergency situation and can result in the noncustodial parent being charged with felony kidnapping. But often this threat does not stop parental kidnapping from occurring.

Who Kidnaps?

Research completed by the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrown-away Children (NISMART), which was founded by the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, states there are many reasons parents may resort to abducting their children. These reasons include using a child as a “pawn” in contentious divorce proceedings, as an extension of battering, to control their spouse or ex-spouse by depriving them of custody or visitation of the child, or to protect the child from abuse. 

“My husband and I obtained legal custody of our granddaughter when it was determined that her mom was unable to take care of her,” says Shirley Sunderland, from Altoona, Pa. “When the baby was 3 months old I was working at the local hospital and often had difficulty finding a sitter for the evening shift. [My daughter] offered to take care of her for that one night. When I got home, the baby was gone and so were some of her belongings. I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach and then realized that the baby had been kidnapped by her own mother.”

The Missing Children’s Registry of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada has developed an overall profile of parental abductions. The profile was constructed to assist those whose child has been abducted by a parent and includes facts such as:

  • Either parent, mother or father, will abduct his or her own child.
  • Mothers tend to abduct children after a court order is completed while fathers do so before the court order.
  • Mothers who abduct their children will keep the children for a longer period of time then fathers who abduct.
  • The “average” age range for parents who abduct their child is 28 to 40 years of age.
  • The fathers who abduct their children are likely to have employment while the mothers who abduct are more likely to be unemployed.
  • The majority of children who are abducted by their own parent but kept within the United States are between 3 and 7 years of age, but children who are taken out of the country tend to be 8 years of age or older.
  • Both male and female children are abducted equally.
  • The majority of children abducted by their own parent are done so from the home and not from areas such as a babysitters, daycare or schoolyard.
  • The abductor, both mother and father, typically makes contact within 48 hours of abducting the child to inform the searcing parent of the child’s well being.
The Other Side of the Coin

The typical reasons are not the only reasons a parent may feel they have no alternative but to kidnap their own child. Many believe the justification of parental abduction go beyond any of the reasons listed above as well as beyond the courtroom.”Dispelling typical myths that parents who kidnap their own child are doing so to get even with society and/or hurt their ex-spouse has proven quite difficult,” says Bonnie Russell, advocate for parental abduction prevention and former victim of a parental kidnapping from Solana Beach, Calif. “While some cases of parental abduction are due to this, it is more the exception then the rule. Other reasons include abuse, neglect, endangerment, unjust hearings or simple injustices. Until the underlying reason parents resort to kidnapping is addressed, no one will understand the subject.”

Some parents feel they have been treated inappropriately before, during or after a custody battle and this treatment played a role in losing custody of their children. For some of these parents, taking their child was their only option.

“My husband physically abused me for years,” says Carolyn Hawkins, a mother of two originally from Medina, Ohio. “And even though I reported him to the police numerous times, had a medical record as thick as a dictionay and had left him twice before, he was awarded custody of my children because he had more money and could hire a lawyer where mine was court appointed. The abuse I suffered led me into a depression and that was used against me in court. What else could I do but get my kids away from him?”

Alternatives to Kidnapping

Many services are available to help in the event of a situation that may be dangerous or harmful to a child. Social service departments, health departments and area chapters of Child Abuse Prevention agencies or even a school counselor can all help a parent who fears for their child’s welfare and safety.

In the event of a disputed divorce or custody order, a parent can move up the chain of command to find assistance or to have additional evidence heard, Samrodan says. If a parent is not in a financial situation to afford an attorney, local chapters of Legal Aid or free legal assistance can be found through social service offices.

“There is always something else that should be tried or attempted before a parent resorts to kidnapping their child,” says Samrodan. “Whether a local, state or federal organization, if a parent truly feels they need assistance, then they can and will find it — all they need to do is ask.”

If a parent suspects the noncustodial parent may abduct their child, they should file an order with the court to investigate a possible parental kidnapping which can assist them in getting a visitation order held until the threat has passed. In the event of a continued threat or possible attempts to abduct the child, the custodial parent should file an order with the court to have the noncustodial parent’s visitation revised to prevent an abduction from taking place, Samrodan says.

“It only takes a few minutes and a little bit of effort to et help when a parent fears their child may or will be abducted by their noncustodial parent,” says Samrodan. “If they need assistance, anyone at the courthouse would be happy to help — again, all that needs to be done is to ask.”

The Effects on the Child

Recent research conducted by NISMART states children endure adverse consequences from being abducted. Besides emotional turmoil, children may suffer from inadequate schooling, poor nutrition, unstable lifestyles and neglect. Some are abandoned, only to be discovered living in foster homes. In the most egregious cases, children suffer long-term harm that may leave them scarred for life. The belief that a child is safe with a parent lessens the chance of aggressive investigation by law enforcement, NISMART states. Yet one study reported 49 percent of abductors have previously established criminal histories and 75 percent of abducting fathers have a history of violent behavior.

After the child is located, researchers suggest that the police encourage both the parent and the child to receive a psychological and physical evaluation.

While Samrodan says parents may feel there is no other alternative, parental kidnapping only adds to the problems. He says parents can often avoid the situation if they are willing to work together and through the courts to find what the best schedule or routine that offers the child time with both parents.

“The system is not perfect and may not always offer the perfect solution the first time around,” says Samrodan. “But taking a child away from what they know as home; what they know as friends; and what they know as stability can and will only add to the hurt and trauma of all those involved. There are other ways and there are people to help you find them. Think before you take your child.”

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