Phase 1: Findings From the National Survey


Photograph of police officer standing outside of a patrol car talking on the radio. 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:

  • An estimated 30,500 parental abduction cases were reported to law enforcement agencies. In 82 percent of these cases, a parent was responsible for the abduction; in 12 percent, a family member other than a parent was the abductor; and in 6 percent, nonfamily members were the perpetrators.

  • Approximately 4,500 cases of parental abduction—only 15 percent of all reported cases—resulted in arrest.

  • A higher number of cases were referred to prosecutors than the 4,500 resulting in arrest. Law enforcement agencies referred about 9,200 parental abduction cases (30 percent of all reported cases) to prosecutors.

  • An estimated 15,000 parental abduction cases were formally opened by prosecutors. This number is substantially higher than the number of referrals to prosecutors' offices by law enforcement agencies (9,200), implying that many parental abduction cases reach these offices by other referral routes, such as through the courts or directly from the aggrieved custodial parent.

  • Criminal charges were filed in only an estimated 3,500 (23 percent) of the 15,000 cases opened by prosecutors. Of the cases in which charges were filed, 31 percent were dismissed and 49 percent resulted in convictions.

  • Only 17 of the 400 counties surveyed reported that their prosecutors' offices filed more than 15 criminal complaints in 1992. Only 8 of these 17 counties were outside of California.

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":

  • Broad-scope cases. These are cases in which a family member either (1) took a child in violation of a custody agreement or decree or (2) failed to return or give over a child at the end of a legal or agreed-upon visit (in violation of a custody agreement or decree) and the child was away at least overnight. NISMART researchers estimated that 354,100 children experienced an abduction under this definition. This category included most cases that would be considered abduction under even the broadest statutes and also many in which law enforcement agencies and prosecutors would not be involved (either because of more stringent legal definitions or by discretion).

  • Policy-focal cases. These are cases that fit the broad-scope definition but also have at least one of the following characteristics: (1) an attempt was made to conceal the taking or whereabouts of the child and prevent contact with the child, (2) the child was transported out of State, or (3) evidence existed that the abductor intended to keep the child indefinitely or to permanently affect custodial privileges. About 46 percent (163,200) of the broad-scope cases fell within this narrower definition (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990).

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:

  • Classification of the crime within the system not readily identifiable. For example, a violation of a custody order may not be distinguishable in the system from a violation of any other court order.

  • Failure to report parental abductions that occur in concert with other crimes. For example, police may record other crimes, such as assault and battery or breaking and entering, and only mention the parental abduction in the narrative of the report.

  • Lack of jurisdiction by some law enforcement agencies to conduct criminal investigations on parental abductions.

  • Informal handling of cases by both police and civil attorneys to return the child to the custodial parent.

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:

  • The existence of a custody order (60.1 percent).

  • The endangerment of a child (52.1 percent).

  • Joint custody (50.3 percent).3

Two of these factors—endangerment of the child and existence of a custody order—were 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.

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