Findings of the First
The combined findings of the Documentary,
Statewide, and Interview Studies
that identified the characteristics of families
in which abduction occurred are summarized
below. In most cases, the characteristics
were found by two or more of
these studies, but in some cases, only one
of the studies obtained relevant data.
- According to the Documentary and
Interview Studies, children abducted
by their parents or other family members
were usually preschoolers. In
the majority of cases, one child was
- According to the Documentary and
Interview Studies, mothers and fathers
were equally likely to abduct. The abducted
child’s parent, usually in his or
her midtwenties or midthirties, almost
always carried out the abduction, although
the child’s grandparent or stepparent
occasionally was the abductor.
- The Documentary Study showed that
almost two-thirds of the abductions
were postcustodial offenses; that is,
the abduction occurred after the issuance
of a court order dictating the custody
of the child. In the Statewide
Study, however, abductions were more
evenly divided between pre- and
- The Statewide and Documentary Studies
found that mothers were more likely
to abduct when a custody order existed,
whereas fathers were more likely
to abduct when no custody order existed.
The Statewide Study found that
fathers were twice as likely as mothers
to abduct in the absence of a custody
- The Statewide and Documentary Studies
discovered that fathers were much
more likely to use force to abduct their
children or to retain them by not returning
them from a visitation, whereas
mothers rarely used force to abduct
their children. Instead, mothers were
more likely to flee with the children or
to deny the fathers visitation. These
patterns of behavior reflect that mothers
usually have physical possession of
- According to the Documentary and Interview
Studies, divorced parents were
the largest category of abductors, followed
by unwed and separated parents.
When compared with custody-litigating
parents in the Interview Study, abducting
parents were far more likely to be
unwed. This group of unwed abducting
parents also included a subgroup of
unwed parents who had cohabited or
had brief transitory relationships.
- Both the Documentary and Interview
Studies found that more than one-half
of the abducting parents were poor, unemployed,
unskilled or semiskilled, and
poorly educated. Consequently, the
poor were overrepresented in the population
of abductors and their families.
Compared with custody-litigating mothers
in the Interview Study, mothers in
abducting families were more likely to
be unemployed, depend on public assistance,
and receive no child support
from the fathers. Many mothers had
few, if any, economic incentives to remain
in the geographical area.
- According to all three studies, rates of
reported abductions and abduction
arrests varied by race and ethnic background.
The proportions of Caucasian
and Hispanic abductors were similar to
the percentages of these racial groups
in the general population: Caucasians
were the largest group of abductors,
followed by Hispanics. In cases reported
to the justice system, African
Americans who abduct were overrepresented
and Asians who abduct were
underrepresented relative to their
percentage in the population. With
the exception of the Caucasian group,
fathers were more likely than mothers
- According to the Documentary and Interview
Studies, abductors were disproportionately
unwed, low-income parents.
Specifically, the Interview Study
found that many of these young parents
had brief relationships with one another
and never developed a pattern of
working together as parents. The mothers
and their extended family felt that
the child belonged to them and that the
fathers had few, if any, custodial or visitation
rights. Rather than looking to
the legal system to assign physical
possession and visitation rights to
specific individuals, the mothers relied
on their extended family and friends to
help raise the child and make informal
custody decisions. These parents did
not use family courts to resolve custody
disputes because they could not
afford legal representation and because
the legal system was largely foreign
to them. Instead, they abducted
their children without regard to legal
An Overview of the Research Projects
- Documentary Study. Based on
information gleaned from files
opened by the district attorneys
in two California counties, researchers
developed a general
description of abductors and a
summary of the legal system’s
response to abductions.
- Statewide Criminal Sanctions
Study. Researchers examined
data from California’s criminal
history records and used various
statistical analyses to describe
offenders, offenses, case dispositions,
and subsequent conduct.
- Interview Study. Researchers
conducted indepth interviews with
a random sample of parents from
abducting families and, based
on their findings, developed six
descriptive profiles of parents at
risk for abducting their children.
- Intervention Study. Researchers
provided instruction to Family
Court Services personnel on how
to identify individuals who fit one
or more of the descriptive profiles.
Personnel were then encouraged
to refer these individuals to the
study for special interventions
developed for the profiles.
- Records from the Documentary Study
showed that about one-fourth of the
abductors did not operate alone in the
act of abducting. Many abductors relied
on a network of family and social
support to carry out and maintain the
abduction. The Interview Study found
that a significant proportion of abductors
(almost three-fifths of women and
two-fifths of men) received moral support
for their actions and practical
help in planning the abduction. The
network of supporters provided money,
food, and lodging and was willing to
conceal the whereabouts of the child.
This widespread support for their actions
may be one reason why many
abductors do not recognize that their
actions are illegal.
- According to the Interview Study, parents
in abducting familiesespecially
motherswere significantly less likely
than parents in high-conflict, custody-litigating
families to have legal representation.
The custody-litigating families
were somewhat more likely than
the abducting families to have detailed
custody and visitation orders, to include
provisions for therapy, and to
have been granted restraining (stay-away)
orders. While abducting families
were significantly less likely than
custody-litigating families to go to
family court (on custody, visitation,
child support, spousal support, property,
or restraining orders), they were
more likely to have come into contact
with the juvenile court.
- The numbers of substantiated allegations
of neglect and unsubstantiated
allegations of sexual abuse were higher
among abducting families than among
custody-litigating families. In the Interview
Study, abducting parents frequently
alleged that child protective
services and family courts did not take
their complaints seriously or failed to
conduct a thorough investigation. Rates
of allegations of parental substance
abuse were similar in abducting and
- According to the Documentary and
Interview Studies, family violence and/or child abuse was a dynamic in many
abducting families. Motherswhether
they were abductors or left-behind
parentsmore often claimed that
child and/or spousal abuse had occurred.
Women abductors were more
likely to see the abduction as an attempt
to protect their children from
abusive fathers or spouses, whereas
male abductors were more likely to
claim that they were attempting to
protect their children from neglectful
mothers. Menwhether they were left-behind
or abducting parentswere
more likely to be accused of domestic
violence and sexual abuse. The Statewide
Study, however, showed little evidence
that formal criminal charges of
domestic violence offenses had occurred
either prior to or around the
time of the abduction.
- Both the custody-litigating parents
and the sample of abductors and left-behind
parents in the Interview Study
reported similarly high incident rates
of domestic violence, including severe
physical aggression. Despite California’s
affirmative defense for parents who
take their children to flee violence, not
all cases involving domestic violence
were identified and provided protection
under this defense. For a small number
of parents in the Interview Study, attempts
to escape the violence by fleeing
with the children backfired. For example,
some women with few resources
who were caught abducting their children
had no place to stay after recovery
and therefore resorted to returning to
their abusive partners. Other mothers
fitting this profile remained separated
but were subject to court-ordered visitation
arrangements that put them and
their children at ongoing risk of being
physically harmed and terrorized by
their violent and controlling ex-partner.
- Compared with the general adult population,
the high-conflict, litigating families
and abducting families in the Interview
Study demonstrated similarly
higher levels of anger, lower levels of
cooperation, a pervasive distrust of
the ex-partner’s parenting, greater
emotional distress, and behaviors indicative
of character disorders. This
signaled that anger and spite, which
are more often attributed to separation
and divorce, were not sufficient in
themselves to motivate abduction.
- About one-half of the abductors and
two-fifths of the left-behind parents in
the Documentary and Interview Studies
had criminal arrest records. The Statewide
Study revealed that more than
one-half of those who were arrested for
criminal custodial interference had a
previous arrest record. Of these, one-third
had been incarcerated. Far more
men than women had arrest records
prior to the abduction, and ethnic and
racial minorities were more likely than
nonminorities to have been arrested
for more serious offenses. Those with
criminal arrest records were more likely
to have been arrested for precustodial
offenses, indicating that most had not
attempted to resolve the custody dispute
through the court system. The Interview
Study found that abductors had
high levels of narcissistic and sociopathic
character disorders. People with
these character disorders often have
contempt for the law and feel that laws
do not apply to them and, therefore,
they can easily run afoul of the criminal
- The Statewide Study showed that only
about 10 percent of those arrested for
criminal custodial interference were
rearrested for a subsequent abduction.
The Interview Study showed higher
recidivism rates, with self-reports of
reabductions at 30 percent. This difference
is likely due to the fact that parents
do not always report abductionsparticularly short-term snatchingsto
law enforcement or the district attorney.
Also, the district attorneys’ criteria
for defining a complaint as an abduction
case may differ from the parents’
criteria. For example, a district attorney
is more likely to perceive a violation as
an abduction when a noncustodial parent
does not return the child and is less
likely to perceive a violation as an abduction
when a custodial parent chronically
Together, these findings suggest a number
of interrelated family risk factors that predict
child abduction by a parent, especially
when children are very young. Parents
and family members at risk are those
who make persistent allegations of child
abuse/neglect and family violence, have
narcissistic/sociopathic personality traits,
and have a history of trouble with the law.
Others who are at risk include those who
are unmarried, less educated, poor, and of
ethnic minority status (especially those
whose extended family live in another
geographical area or another country).
All of these factors make parents less
likely to resolve custody disputes by using
the formal, legal system. Instead they
turn to their own families and social networks
for emotional support and practical
help, which may include abduction.
Six profiles of separating/divorced parents
at risk for abducting their children
are proposed on the basis of these findings
and are shown in the following table. To the extent that families meet the
criteria for more than one profile, the risk
for abduction is probably increased. The
table also lists suggested interventions
that authorities and parents can take to
help reduce the likelihood of abductions.
Risk Factors and Preventive Interventions for Custody Violation and Parental Abduction
|Risk Profile||Behavioral Indicators *||Interventions †|
|When there has been a prior threat of or actual abduction
- Threatens to take child, has a history of hiding child, refuses visits, or snatches child.
- Has no financial or emotional ties to area.
- Has resources to survive in hiding or help from others to do so; has liquidated assets or has made maximum withdrawals of funds against credit cards.
- Obtain certified copy of custody/visitation
order specifying access and jurisdiction.
- Obtain restraining order that prohibits
leaving area without permission.
- Flag passports or school, medical, and
birth records so that both parents need
to approve the release of or at least be
advised of the other parent’s request to
see these materials.
- Supervise visits or use electronic
- Require that potential abducting parent
- Provide family counseling and mediation
|When a parent suspects or believes abuse has occurred and friends and family members support these concerns
- Has a fixed belief that the child is abused, molested, or neglected and that authorities will not take charges seriously and will dismiss them as unsubstantiated.
- Has the support of friends and family.
- Makes repetitive allegations and is increasingly hostile; distrust between parents
- Undertake a timely, thorough investigation
- Inform concerned social network.
- Coordinate all professionals involved to
share perspectives and conclusions.
- Implement temporary supervised visits
to protect abused child or falsely accused parent. If investigation is inconclusive,
appoint coparenting counselor-arbitrator
to provide counseling, rebuild
trust, and monitor situation.
- Provide the child with therapy.
|When a parent is paranoid delusional
- Is flagrantly paranoid and irrational and makes allegations.
- Has a history of hospitalizations for mental illness and has delusions of mind control.
- Engages in bizarre forms of domestic violence; boundary confusion observable between parent and child.
- Makes threats of murder/suicide.
- Assess lethality!
- Conduct emergency ex parte hearing
for psychiatric screening; appoint legal
representation for child and deluded
- Suspend visits or supervise with high
- Award temporary custody to other
parent or to third party.
- Provide adult psychiatric treatment and
|When a parent is severely sociopathic
- Has multiple arrests and convictions and a blatant contempt for court orders.
- Stalks, makes threats of domestic violence, manipulates and controls, or initiates vexatious litigation.
- Has self-serving, exploitive, and self-aggrandizing relationships.
- Have the parent obtain appropriate
- Engage decisive use of court authority;
obtain explicit court orders and rapid
sanctions for contempt; fine or jail.
- Suspend or supervise access and resume
unsupervised visits contingent on
|When a parent who is a citizen of another country ends a mixed-culture marriage
- See “When there has been a prior threat of or actual abduction”.
- Idealizes own family, homeland, and culture after dissolution of mixed-cultural marriage and depreciates American culture; rejects or dismisses child’s mixed heritage.
- Feels separation and divorce are severe loss/humiliation.
- Feels homeland offers more emotional/ financial support.
- Is a high risk if from a non-Hague country.‡
- See “When there has been a prior threat
of or actual abduction”.
- Require that parent departing with child
post bonds to ensure return from visiting
homeland; hold passport and monitor
- Obtain mirror custody orders with country
of origin; inform families of consequences
of aiding custody violation.
- Provide culturally sensitive divorce
counseling, including child’s need for
both parents and both cultural identities.
- Provide emotional/financial support.
|When parents feel alienated from the legal system and have family/social support in another community
- Is undergoing severe economic hardship, is poorly educated, and never married.
- Is a member of an ethnic minority group, has language barriers, and has cultural beliefs regarding custody contrary to U.S. legal norms.
- Is a victim of domestic violence and is alienated from major social institutions.
- Has family/social support in another geographic area.
- Provide access to legal services, pro se
clinics, and translation assistance.
- Advocate community services.
- Provide culturally sensitive divorce and
- Educate parent and social network
regarding abduction laws.
* Common to all profiles: (1) Parent dismisses value of other parent for child, (2) child is very young or vulnerable to influence, and (3) abductor has family and social support.
† General principle: More restrictive measures that curtail parents’ freedoms are warranted when (1) the risks for abduction are greater, (2) the
obstacles to the recovery of the child are more substantial, and (3) the potential harm to the child is more extensive.
‡ The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, ratified in 1986, is an international treaty that establishes administrative and judicial mechanisms to bring about the prompt return of an abducted or wrongfully retained child, usually to his or her country of habitual residence, and to facilitate the exercise of visitation across international borders. The Convention took effect in 1988, following enactment of the International Child Abduction Remedies Act, a Federal implementing statute.
|Early Identification of Risk Factors for Parental Abduction
Justice Bulletin March 2001