Definition and Legal Framework

For purposes of this Bulletin (and for much of the research conducted on this issue), parental abduction (also referred to as "family abduction") is defined as "the taking, retention, or concealment of child or children by a parent, other family member, or their agent, in derogation of the custody rights, including visitation rights, of another parent or family member" (Girdner, 1993:111). Abductors may be other family members or their agents (e.g., girlfriend, boyfriend, grandparent, or even a private investigator), although in most cases the abductor is a child's parent (Girdner, 1993). Some State criminal statutes use the term "custodial interference" (rather than parental abduction, family abduction, or kidnapping) when referring to this crime and may include incidents in which children are detained or enticed away from the custodial parent. Custodial interference can also be defined to include interference with a court order of visitation or access.

Although many individuals, including some law enforcement personnel, perceive parental abduction as "civil in nature" and a private family matter best handled outside the realm of the criminal justice system, it is a crime in all 50 States and the District of Columbia and, in most cases, constitutes a felony. In some States, parental abduction constitutes a crime only in cases in which a custody order has been violated. In others, no custody order is required for parental abduction to be considered a criminal offense.

Criminal and Civil Laws Regarding Parental Abduction
The Missing Children's Act of 1982 (28 U.S.C. 534(a)). This Act requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to enter descriptive information on missing children into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, a computer database with information on missing persons that can be accessed by law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. 5780). This Act requires that State and local law enforcement agencies immediately enter information on missing children younger than 18 into the NCIC database and prohibits such agencies from maintaining any waiting period prior to taking a report of a missing child.

The Missing Children's Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5771 et seq.). Enacted in 1984 and reauthorized in 1988, 1992, and 1999, this Act resulted in the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NCMEC serves as a national resource center on missing children, providing support to criminal justice system personnel and aggrieved parents as they seek to identify and recover missing children, including those who have been abducted by a parent. It operates a toll-free hotline, provides technical assistance to law enforcement personnel in the field, and educates the public and others on relevant issues.

The Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980 (28 U.S.C. 1738A). Providing for civil remedies, this Federal Act gives jurisdictional priority to the child's home State in parental abduction cases where conflicts arise between two States. It extends the Federal Fugitive Felon Act to cases in which a child has been taken out of a State where that act would constitute a felony, thus enabling the FBI to investigate. It also authorizes certain persons access to the Federal Parent Locator Service for purposes of identifying the whereabouts of a parentally abducted child.

The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA). An important civil remedy that exists to combat parental abduction, this jurisdictional statute governs when a court has jurisdiction over a parental abduction case and attempts to prevent the occurrence of simultaneous proceedings in two different States. It has been enacted with some variation in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands.

The Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, adopted unanimously by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1997 and approved by the American Bar Association in 1998, amends UCCJA to bring it into conformity with the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act. UCCJEA also clarifies jurisdictional provisions of UCCJA that courts have interpreted inconsistently across the country. As of January 2001, 22 States had enacted UCCJEA.1

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. This Convention, ratified by the United States in 1988, is an international treaty currently in effect in 43 countries.2 It serves to simplify and expedite the return process when children have been abducted internationally. The Convention's implementing procedures can be found in the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (42 U.S.C. 11601 et seq.). In 1993, the United States also passed the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act (18 U.S.C. 1204), making the abduction or retention of a child from the United States a felony.

1. For more detail about UCCJEA, including a list of States that have adopted the Act, see

2. For the most recent list of countries that have ratified the Hague Convention, see

Previous Contents Next

The Criminal Justice System's Response to Parental Abduction Juvenile Justice Bulletin December 2001