The Criminal Justice System’s Response

Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices all have important roles to play in responding to the crime of parental abduction.4 Specifically, these entities are charged with the responsibility for investigating cases of missing children and filing criminal charges against abductors. Their responsibilities enable them to search for the abductor and child and gather evidence for possible prosecution (Girdner, 1994c).

Law Enforcement Agency Response

Law enforcement is often the first avenue of assistance that left-behind parents turn to when their child has been taken. Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks (1993) discovered that parents whose children had been abducted by the other parent called law enforcement first in 90 percent of cases, usually within 24 hours of their initial concern (62 percent). Families also reported calling NCMEC (41 percent) and relatives of the abductor (29 percent) for assistance.

Using the data collected in the NISMART study, Plass, Finkelhor, and Hotaling (1995) found that parents reported that they contacted the police in about 40 percent of the cases (about 141,000). This indicates a higher reporting rate than in other family crimes, such as domestic violence (Plass, Finkelhor, and Hotaling, 1995). Results also indicated that parents were more likely to contact police if the child was actually taken, the abductor threatened to prevent any contact with the child, or an attempt was made to conceal the location of the child. Making a report to law enforcement agencies, however, does not ensure they will investigate. Collins and colleagues (1993) surveyed both left-behind parents and law enforcement personnel and learned that police, rather than handling these cases themselves, referred many cases to family courts, prosecutors, and social service agencies.

Obstacles to Handling Parental Abduction Cases

Law enforcement agencies point to the many obstacles they face in handling parental abduction cases, such as the following (Collins et al., 1993):

  • Verifying custody orders, overcoming the poor documentation available on custody orders, and dealing with custody orders subject to varying interpretations.

  • Deciphering the deceptive and contradictory information provided by the left-behind and abducting parents.

  • Interpreting vague laws or statutes regarding custody and child abduction.

  • Clarifying law enforcement’s and prosecutors’ roles in other jurisdictions.

  • Overcoming lack of cooperation among judges (in enforcing civil custody orders).

  • Having to rely on less than cooperative law enforcement authorities in other jurisdictions to assist in the return of the child and the abductor.

High-Priority Parental Abduction Cases

The limited research available indicates that law enforcement personnel are more likely to respond to those cases of parental abduction considered to be more “serious.” These include cases in which the child is taken out of State and/or concealed (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1991; Girdner, 1994d). In cases when the child is taken out of State, a police response is more likely if a court order delineating custody has been issued in the State of the abduction. Girdner (1994d) found that, when there was no custody order, the existence of a restraining order prohibiting the removal of the child from the originating State doubled the number of States in which police would undertake a search for a parentally abducted child (42 percent of States, compared with 22 percent when no action was pending and 25 percent when custody was pending)

Other factors that may prompt a high-priority police investigation are cases in which there is a family history of abusing the child, the abducted child is in danger of sexual exploitation, or the child has special medical needs (Collins et al., 1993).

Reporting and Investigation

The National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 5780) requires that law enforcement agencies take a missing child report and enter information about that child into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database without a waiting period, regardless of whether the abduction constitutes a criminal violation. Primary responsibility for entering the missing child’s description into the NCIC database rests with law enforcement agencies. Left-behind parents surveyed by Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks (1993) reported that 55.8 percent of law enforcement agencies entered the child’s name into the NCIC database during the first week after the abduction. However, almost half (14) of the State missing children clearinghouses surveyed by Girdner (1994d) reported that, in practice, law enforcement personnel inaccurately think that there must be a violation of the State parental abduction statute before they are required to make an NCIC entry. Most law enforcement personnel identified an alternative agency as authorized to make an NCIC entry. In one-third of the States, no entry was made if the designated law enforcement agency failed to make an entry (Girdner, 1994d).

In practice, entry into the NCIC database could also depend on the marital and custodial status of the left-behind parent, in part because of the nature of some States’ custodial interference statutes. The existence of a custody order doubled or tripled the number of States in which an NCIC entry on the child was reported to be routinely entered compared to cases in which custody had not yet been determined (75 percent for in-State custody orders, compared with 44 percent for out-of-State custody orders and 25 percent for cases in which a custody order was pending). About 40 percent of respondents stated that law enforcement rarely or never entered names of abducted children, unless there was an existing or pending custody order (Girdner, 1994d).

The study conducted by Plass, Finkelhor, and Hotaling (1995) looked at law enforcement’s response to receiving a report of parental abduction. Based on a survey of parents, the study found that the police took an average of three of the following six actions for each case:5

  • Police took a report over the phone (27 percent).

  • An officer was sent to the scene (54 percent).

  • The responding officer interviewed the parent (58 percent).

  • The officer produced a written report during the interview (61 percent).

  • Police obtained photographs of the child(ren) (24 percent).

  • Police referred the case to another agency (36 percent).

Many parents surveyed in this study did not perceive the police response as appropriate. Sixty-two percent said they were “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with police handling of their cases (Plass, Finkelhor, and Hotaling, 1995).

State Missing Children Clearinghouses

State missing children clearinghouses can provide law enforcement agencies with assistance in investigating and recovering parentally abducted children. All States and the District of Columbia have official State missing children clearinghouses. These clearinghouses provide public education and information; communicate and coordinate with parents, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and personnel of other agencies; and assist in locating and recovering abducted children. Some also serve as a State contact for the United States Central Authority in Hague Convention cases (Girdner, 1994d).6

In a study of clearinghouses, Girdner (1994d) learned that approximately 50 percent had handled more than 200 cases of parental abduction since their inception. Eighty-one percent of these clearinghouses were located in criminal justice agencies (e.g., State police, criminal investigation, justice), although only 45 percent reported having any type of law enforcement authority. Almost 75 percent provided technical assistance in specific cases and kept a centralized file of cases.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

The Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980 (28 U.S.C. § 1738A) authorizes the FBI to investigate cases in which children have been abducted by parents or their agents across State lines or out of the country. The vast majority of cases (73.1 percent) reviewed by Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks (1993) revealed no assistance from the FBI. For left-behind parents who have had FBI assistance, half reported being very satisfied with the agency’s work (Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks, 1993). For those who did not have FBI involvement, more than 39 percent of left-behind parents believed FBI involvement would have led to a faster recovery of their child. About one-fourth (26 percent) of these parents also stated that, based on their knowledge, their cases did qualify for FBI assistance (Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks, 1993).

Criminal Court and Prosecutors

Federal and State-level criminalization of parental abduction has resulted in changes in how these cases are handled, not only by law enforcement agencies but also by criminal courts and prosecutors’ offices. Before the enactment of the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act and Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980, even in cases in which custody orders had been issued, parents who left a State with a child might be able to obtain in another State a conflicting custody order that might then be upheld. Most left-behind parents seeking to recover their children had to do so without help from law enforcement agencies. Additionally, even though civil courts had the authority to impose civil sanctions on parents who violated court orders, the courts rarely exercised that authority (Blomquist, 1992).

Research indicates that few jurisdictions have had much experience in prosecuting cases of parental abduction. A nationwide survey of 74 prosecutors’ offices conducted by APRI indicated that 78 percent of respondents handle only 1 to 5 parental abduction cases every year; 90 percent handle between 1 and 20 per year (Klain, 1995). A much smaller percentage (4 percent) handle more than 100 cases each year. Just 1 in 25 prosecutors’ offices in the country have specialized parental abduction units. Most parental abduction cases (58 percent) are handled by nonspecialists or by one or several designated attorneys. The rest are handled by domestic violence, family crime, special assault, or child abuse units (Klain, 1995).

Sagatun and Barrett (1990) reviewed 43 parental abduction cases handled by a California family court services agency between 1983 and 1987. They found that criminal proceedings were instituted in 58 percent of the cases (67 percent of abductions committed by a mother and 33 percent of abductions committed by a father), with a warrant being issued in 52 percent. In 69 percent of the cases in which a warrant was issued, arrests were made.

In a survey of State missing children clearinghouses, Girdner (1994d) asked about involvement of prosecutors’ offices in locating children in cases in which a criminal offense of parental abduction was committed under State law. More than 40 percent (15) of the clearinghouses reported that local prosecutors’ offices were involved in locating the child, most frequently by obtaining warrants.

Low Numbers of Cases Handled by the Criminal Justice System

Although there are no numbers that enable a comparison of the number of criminally litigated cases with the 163,200 serious (or policy focal) cases reported by the NISMART study (Finkelhor, Hotaling and Sedlak, 1991), anecdotal evidence suggests that many cases are likely being screened out of the criminal justice system or are not being addressed at all. Girdner (1994a) identified some reasons for the low number of cases that end up in the criminal justice system:

  • Parental abduction statutes vary from State to State, with some classifying the crime as a felony and others as a misdemeanor.

  • Many States fail to use or are inconsistent in using other procedures (e.g., flagging school and birth records) when investigating abductions.

  • Law enforcement agencies and missing children clearinghouses are generally underfunded, and parental abduction cases get a lower priority because of the greater demands associated with other offenses.

  • Law enforcement personnel and prosecutors are inexperienced or lack knowledge in the handling of these cases and, consequently, are not complying with Federal and State laws (e.g., taking missing child reports, entering information into the NCIC database).

International parental abduction cases are further complicated by the need to enlist the help and cooperation of foreign governmental agencies, including law enforcement and the courts. In some cases, left-behind parents and those who assist them must contend with cultural and religious prejudices and with relatives and underground networks that facilitate the disappearance of the abductor and child (Kiedrowski, Jayewardene, and Dalley, 1994). Some abductors also participate in “forum shopping”: locating a country and jurisdiction where the abductor believes courts will grant him or her custody.

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Parental Abduction: A Review of the Literature