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Parental Abduction

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Parents of missing children say that the pain is excruciating, and psychologists confirm that the loss can be even greater than when a child dies. Coping with a missing child -- be it months or years -- is a parent’s worst nightmare. 

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 797,500 children under the age of 18 were reported missing in 2008. An average of 2,185 children are reported missing each day, with most abductions being from family members rather than strangers. 

According to the US Department of Justice, mothers and fathers abduct their children in equal numbers. Kidnapping by a family member often occurs when there is a custody dispute. Since custodial mothers outnumber custodial fathers four to one, custodial fathers are at a much higher risk of having their children abducted by noncustodial mothers than custodial mothers are of having their children abducted by noncustodial fathers.

There are many different reasons why parents abduct their children. In some cases, the abducting parent is mentally unstable and/or a drug abuser. In others, the parent abducts because of "power, control and narcissism."  In many cases, the abducting parent truly misses the child and wants to be with them despite a court’s ruling that limits their parenting time. Seizing the child allows them more time with their child, as well as, giving them the "power" they need by making them feel like the better parent and also by gaining control over the court’s decision.

Many abducting parents are narcissistic, believing that abducting the child would be in their children’s best interest when, in reality, they are only acting to gratify their own desires. Most experts agree, however, that revenge against a former spouse or partner is the primary motive in the majority of parental kidnapping cases; such emotions are often the malignant outgrowth of the unjust win/lose child custody system.

For women, losing custody of one’s children can be emotionally devastating. Courts lean so heavily towards mothers in child custody rulings that mothers without custody often bear the terrible stigma of "unfit mother," even if they ceded custody voluntarily or for health reasons.

For fathers, losing custody does not bear the same stigma, simply because few fathers are able to win custody of their children. However, fathers also acutely feel the loss of daily contact with their children following a divorce or separation. Perhaps more importantly, studies show that half or more noncustodial fathers are victims of access and visitation denial or "move-away moms." This unrecognized epidemic often cuts fathers out of their children’s lives entirely, and can make some desperate or vengeful enough that they resort to seizing their children.

Government efforts to address parental kidnappings, such as the 1980 federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, have not solved the problem. Reform of the child custody system would prevent the kidnappings from occurring in the first place.

According to the US Department of Justice’ s Office of Juvenile Justice, children in sole custody are at a far greater risk of being abducted by a parent than children in joint physical custody. One effective way to reduce the incidence of parental kidnapping is to replace the current win/lose, adversarial family court system with shared parenting and the rebuttable presumption of joint physical custody.

Under shared parenting, if divorcing parents are unable to agree on a shared parenting plan, the courts would implement a plan which affords both parents equal physical time with the child or children. Judges would not be able to deviate from this egalitarian arrangement unless there is strong evidence that one of the parents has committed acts which render that parent unfit, such as child abuse or domestic violence.

By assuring both parents that they will be able to remain equal participants in their children’s lives, shared parenting takes much of the conflict and struggle for power out of divorce. In turn, it will lessen the anger and fear endemic to custody battles--emotions which can lead some parents to commit vengeful and harmful child abductions.