Findings of the First Three Studies

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 abducted.

  • 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 postcustodial offenses.

  • 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 order.

  • 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 their children.

  • 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 to abduct.

  • 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 ramifications.

    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 families—especially mothers—were 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 custody-litigating families.

  • According to the Documentary and Interview Studies, family violence and/or child abuse was a dynamic in many abducting families. Mothers—whether they were abductors or left-behind parents—more 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. Men—whether they were left-behind or abducting parents—were 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 justice system.

  • 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 abductions—particularly short-term snatchings—to 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 withholds visitation.

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 ProfileBehavioral 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 surveillance.
  • Require that potential abducting parent post bonds.
  • Provide family counseling and mediation of impasse.
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 exists.
  • Undertake a timely, thorough investigation of allegations.
  • 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 parent.
  • Suspend visits or supervise with high security.
  • Award temporary custody to other parent or to third party.
  • Provide adult psychiatric treatment and child therapy.
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 restraining orders.
  • 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 conforming behavior.
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 airlines.
  • 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 custody counseling/mediation.
  • 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.

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