Phase 1: Findings From the National SurveyMethodology
All law enforcement agencies and prosecutors serving a nationally representative sample of 400 counties were surveyed about their handling of parental abduction incidents occurring in 1992. In all, 400 prosecutors' offices, 405 county law enforcement agencies, and 3,625 municipal law enforcement agencies were surveyed. Two questionnaires, one to be filled out by law enforcement agencies and the other by prosecutors, were mailed to the offices of sheriffs, police, and prosecutors in the selected jurisdictions.
Because of a series of followup mailings and other reminders to survey participants, the response rate was excellent for a mail survey. Overall, 76.6 percent of the law enforcement agencies completed the survey, 4.7 percent were found to be ineligible because the agencies did not have jurisdiction to conduct criminal investigations of parental abductions, and only 0.5 percent directly refused. Three-quarters (75 percent) of sampled prosecutors completed the survey, with 2.5 percent declining to participate and 22.5 percent not responding at all.
National Estimates of Reports, Arrests, and Prosecutor Actions
Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors reported the following for 1992:
Relation to NISMART Estimates
The most comprehensive study of the extent of parental abduction is the National Incidence Studies on Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America (NISMART)2 (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990). Conducted in 1988, this nationwide telephone household survey produced estimates of the number of family abductions (to both domestic and international destinations) nationwide. Cases identified in NISMART are categorized as either "broad scope" or "policy focal":
The national estimates of reports of parental abduction to law enforcement agencies in the present study include only cases for which law enforcement officially took a report (30,500) or for which prosecutors' offices officially opened a case (15,000). These figures are substantially lower than the estimated number of family abduction cases reported in the 1990 NISMART study. Figures from both studies appear equally valid in their own right. Possible explanations for the discrepancy between the two studies include:
Case Characteristics Influencing Law Enforcement and Prosecutor Processing
The following three factors were most frequently cited by law enforcement agencies as influencing their decision to take a report of an alleged parental abduction:
Two of these factorsendangerment of the child and existence of a custody orderwere also among three of the most commonly cited factors determining investigative priority (70.9 and 51.9 percent, respectively). The other most frequently reported factor was the child's disability status, cited by 65.7 percent of agencies.
The most common factors influencing whether a prosecutor's office opened a case were the existence of a custody order (70.6 percent), joint custody (62.8 percent), and endangerment of a child (62.2 percent). Regarding whether a case was actually prosecuted (i.e., filing of a criminal complaint), the three most common factors influencing this decision were the existence of a custody order (77.0 percent), the length of time the child had been gone (68.0 percent), and joint custody (66.9 percent).
Agency Characteristics and Resources
The majority of law enforcement agencies reported that they did not have written policies and procedures governing parental abduction cases (69 percent), that they did not receive formal training on the handling of parental abduction cases (63 percent), and that they were not aided by a computerized MIS in providing information on the number of parental abduction cases reported to their agencies (69 percent). Only 10 percent of the law enforcement agencies indicated that they had specialized programs designed to address parental abduction in their jurisdictions.
The survey of prosecutors produced similar findings. The vast majority stated that they had not been aided by a computerized MIS in providing survey information (85 percent), that they did not have policies or written guidelines on the handling of parental abduction cases (86 percent), and that staff did not receive formal training on parental abduction (86 percent). Seventy-nine percent of the prosecutors' offices indicated that they did not have specialized parental abduction programs.