Research Design

The four discrete research projects that made up the study were designed to identify the characteristics of abductors and their families and examine the effectiveness of interventions used to prevent or respond to child abductions. Research was conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. This location was chosen for several reasons. First, California’s criminal statute broadly defines parental abduction (also known as criminal custodial interference or child stealing) to include the following offenses:

  • Abduction by a parent with rights of custody and visitation who has no custody order from the court (precustodial abduction).

  • Abduction by a parent with rights of custody who has a custody order from the court (postcustodial abduction).

  • Abductions by persons with no rights of custody.

Unwed, married, separated, or divorced parents and parents who have sole or joint custody or visitation or no custody rights can commit parental abduction by violating the rights of the other parent.

A second reason for choosing California is that, because they are mandated to use both civil and criminal remedies to locate and recover abducted children, district attorneys in California have extensive files on a range of parental abductions.3 Third, California is a large State with a diverse population, and fourth, comparative data on litigated custody already exist in California. Finally, California provides an affirmative defense for victims who are fleeing domestic violence situations, thus providing researchers with an opportunity to assess to what extent and when these kinds of cases are identified and excluded from charges of parental child stealing.

In the first of the four research studies, the “Documentary Study,” Inger Sagatun-Edwards (1998) studied 634 parental child-stealing cases from files opened by the district attorneys in two California counties between 1987 and 1990. From these documents, information was gleaned about each family’s sociodemographic status, legal situation, abduction circumstances, and dispute characteristics and the legal system’s response to parental child stealing. Based on these records, researchers developed a general description of abductors and a summary of the legal system’s response to abductions.

In the second study, the “Statewide Criminal Sanctions Study” (Statewide Study), Martha-Elin Blomquist (1998) examined data from statewide criminal history records for all 950 persons who were arrested for violating one of three sections of the California criminal code for parental abduction between 1984 and 1989. Blomquist used various statistical analyses to describe the characteristics of offenders, offenses, case dispositions, and subsequent conduct, including that of repeat offenders and serial abductions. A subset of those arrested for multiple abductions was also examined.

In the third research study, the “Interview Study,” Janet Johnston (1998c) conducted indepth interviews with a random sample of 70 parents from 50 abducting families drawn from the district attorneys’ records used in the Documentary Study. The participants in this study—35 men and 35 women, half of whom were abductors and half of whom were left-behind parents—also completed psychological questionnaires. The researchers systematically compared the demographic, legal, psychological, and family dynamic characteristics of these abducting families with similar data from 114 members of 57 high-conflict nonabducting families who were litigating custody.

Six descriptive profiles of parents at risk for abducting their children emerged from the findings of the Interview Study (see the sidebar). In the fourth study, referred to as the “Intervention Study,” Johnston (1998a, 1998b) provided instruction to Family Court Services personnel (who are mandated to mediate all custody disputes in California) on how to identify individuals who fit one or more of the descriptive profiles and encouraged the personnel to refer these individuals to the Intervention Study for special interventions developed for the profiles. Fifty families identified as fitting one or more of the risk profiles for abduction were randomly assigned to one of two counseling interventions: a brief 10-hour intervention that primarily involved diagnostic and referral services or a longer, 40-hour intervention that included more extensive counseling and mediation of the family’s impasse. Other services, such as legal representation and abuse investigations, were sought for both intervention groups as needed. Researchers evaluated the parents after 9 months to analyze and compare the outcomes of the two types of intervention models. The findings of the four component studies are summarized in the following two sections.

Profiles of Parents At Risk for Abducting Their Children

Profile 1: When There Has Been a Prior Threat of or Actual Abduction
When a parent has made credible threats to abduct a child or has a history of hiding the child, withholding visitation, or snatching the child from the other parent, there is great distrust between the parents and a heightened risk of further custody violation. This risk profile is usually combined with one or more of the other profiles. In these cases, the underlying psychological and social dynamics that motivate the abduction need to be understood and addressed. When other risk factors are present, one or more of the following are general indicators of an imminent threat of flight with the child:

  • The parent is unemployed, homeless, and without emotional or financial ties to the area.

  • The parent has divulged plans to abduct the child and has the resources or the support of extended family and/or friends and underground dissident networks needed to survive in hiding.

  • The parent has liquidated assets, made maximum withdrawals of funds against credit cards, or borrowed money from other sources.

Profile 2: When a Parent Suspects or Believes Abuse Has Occurred and Friends and Family Members Support These Concerns
Many parents abduct their child because they believe that the other parent is abusing, molesting, or neglecting the child. These abducting parents feel that the authorities have not taken them seriously or properly investigated the allegations. Repeated allegations increase the hostility and distrust between the parents. Parents who have the fixed belief that abuse has occurred—and will continue to occur—then “rescue” the child, often with the help of supporters who concur with their beliefs, justify their actions, and often help with the abduction and concealment. Supporters might include family members, friends, or underground networks (usually women) that help “protective” parents (usually women) obtain new identities and find safe locations.

In a large number of cases, the child has been previously exposed to neglectful, endangering, or violent environments (e.g., domestic violence or substance abuse). In these cases, the courts and child protective services may have failed to protect the child and the concerned parent or family member. They may have trivialized the allegations, dismissing them as invalid or the product of a contentious divorce. Often, however, the allegation of sexual abuse by a father or stepfather that motivates a mother to abduct her child is unsubstantiated. In these cases, the abduction can psychologically harm the child and the other parent, possibly leaving their relationship in serious need of repair.

Profile 3: When a Parent Is Paranoid Delusional
Although only a small percentage of parents fit this profile, these parents present the greatest risk of physical harm or death to the child, regardless of whether an abduction occurs. Parents who fit the paranoid profile hold markedly irrational or psychotic delusions that the other parent will definitely harm them and/or the child. Believing themselves to be betrayed and exploited by their former partner, these parents urgently take what they consider to be necessary measures to protect themselves and the child.

Psychotic parents do not perceive the child as a separate person. Rather, they perceive the child as part of themselves—that is, as a victim (in which case they take unilateral measures to rescue the child)—or they perceive the child as part of the hated other parent (in which case they may precipitously abandon or even kill the child). Marital separation and/or the instigation of the custody dispute generally triggers an acute phase of danger for these psychotic individuals. The result can be not only parental abduction, but also murder and suicide.

Profile 4: When a Parent Is Severely Sociopathic
Sociopathic parents are characterized by a long history of flagrant violations of the law and contempt for any authority—including that of the legal system. Their relationships with other people are self-serving, exploitive, and highly manipulative. These people are also likely to hold exaggerated beliefs about their own superiority and entitlement and are highly gratified by their ability to exert power and control over others. As with paranoid and delusional parents, sociopathic parents are unable to perceive their children as having separate needs or rights. Consequently, they often use their children as instruments of revenge or punishment or as trophies in their fight with the former partner. Sociopathic parents have no qualms about continuing coercive, controlling, and abusive behavior or abducting their child, nor do they believe that they should be punished for their actions. Like paranoia, a diagnosis of severe sociopathy is rare.

Profile 5: When a Parent Who Is a Citizen of Another Country Ends a Mixed-Culture Marriage
Parents who are citizens of another country (or who have dual citizenship with the United States) and have strong ties to their extended family in their country of origin have long been recognized as potential abductors. The risk of abduction is especially acute at the time of parental separation and divorce, when these parents may feel cast adrift from their mixed-culture marriage and may need to return to their ethnic or religious roots to find emotional support and reconstitute a shaken self-identity. Often in reaction to being rendered helpless or feeling rejected and discarded by the former spouse, such parents may try to take unilateral action by returning with the child to their family of origin. This is a way of insisting that the abducting parent’s cultural identity be given preeminent status in the child’s upbringing.

Profile 6: When Parents Feel Alienated From the Legal System and Have Family/Social Support in Another Community
Many subgroups of potential abductors feel alienated from the judicial system. Listed below are five such subgroups.

Subgroup 1. Parents who are indigent and poorly educated lack knowledge about custody and abduction laws and cannot afford the legal representation or psychological counseling that would help them resolve their disputes. Those parents who have extended family or other social, emotional, and economic support in another geographical community may be at risk for abducting their children.

Subgroup 2. Many parents cannot afford and are unaware of the need to access the court system. In addition, those who have had prior negative experiences with civil or criminal courts do not expect family courts to be responsive to their values or their plight.

Subgroup 3. Parents who belong to certain ethnic, religious, or cultural groups may hold views about childrearing that are contrary to the prevailing custody laws that emphasize gender neutrality and the rights of both parents. These parents instead turn to their own social networks for support and use informal self-help measures rather than the courts in disputes over the children.

Subgroup 4. A mother who has a transient, unmarried relationship with her child’s father often views the child as her property, and her extended family supports this belief. Many of the women in this subgroup assume they have sole custody of their child and are genuinely surprised when they are informed that the father—by law in California and most other States—has joint rights to the child.

Subgroup 5. Parents who are victims of domestic violence are at risk of abducting their child, especially when the courts and community have failed to take the necessary steps to protect them from abuse or to hold the abuser accountable. Joint custody, mediated agreements, and visitation orders often leave victims vulnerable to ongoing violence, despite separation from the abuser. When such victims abduct their child, the violent partners may successfully obscure the facts about the abuse and activate the abduction laws to regain control of their victims.

3 When this study was conducted, California was the only State in which the district attorneys acted as the enforcement arm of the family court. The Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act—promulgated in 1997 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and approved by the American Bar Association in 1998—includes enforcement provisions similar to California’s. To obtain more information on this Act, visit on the World Wide Web.

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