“You’ll never see your child again!” When are these words an idle threat spoken in anger and frustration and when are they a warning that a parent intends to abduct his or her child, depriving the child and the other parent of future contact?

Although custody laws vary from State to State, abducting one’s own child is a crime in every State. If a parent or other family member takes, hides, or keeps a child away from a parent with custody or visitation rights, then he or she may have committed a crime.1 More important, a child often is harmed by life on the run and by being deprived of his or her other parent. Prior to abduction, many of these children have been exposed to neglectful and abusive behaviors in their homes and have witnessed high levels of conflict between their parents. These children are at risk for psychological harm.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, funded a research study (Johnston et al., 1998) on prevention of family abduction through early identification of risk factors to answer the following questions:2

  • What type of parent abducts his or her child?

  • What role does family violence play in increasing the likelihood of abduction?

  • How can one identify which child is at risk of being abducted by a parent or other family members?

  • What can be done to prevent family abductions and protect the child?

This Bulletin describes the multiple discrete research projects that made up the research study and highlights the findings. The authors also recommend steps that communities can take to help protect children from family abduction.

1 In some States, these actions are a crime if a custody order is in place, while in other States, these actions are a crime if the parent has a right to custody.

2 The research study was a collaboration between the Judith S. Wallerstein Center for the Family in Transition and the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. The authors encourage readers to study the full report, Prevention of Parent or Family Abduction Through Early Identification of Risk Factors (Johnston et al., 1998), which brings together several years of research and provides much greater detail regarding who abducts their child, what interventions are effective, and how to protect the child from family abduction. To order a copy of this report (NCJ 182791), call 800–638–8736 or send an e-mail to

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Early Identification of Risk Factors for Parental Abduction Juvenile Justice Bulletin March 2001