Phase 2: Findings From Site Visits

In 1994, project staff conducted extensive interviews with individuals familiar with the criminal justice system's processing of parental abduction cases in six counties of varying sizes and attributes: Escambia County, FL; Hudson County, NJ; Pima County, AZ; Salt Lake County, UT; San Diego County, CA; and Snohomish County, WA. The primary purposes of the site visits were to examine how law enforcement agencies respond to parental abduction reports and to identify unique case-handling practices.

Sites were selected based on the results of the national survey. The sites were chosen for their geographic diversity and met the following criteria:

  • The prosecutor's office in the county had filed at least 15 criminal custodial interference complaints in 1992.

  • Agencies in the county used MISs for individual case tracking.

At the time of site selection, it was determined that the filing of a relatively high number of criminal complaints (in this case, 15 or more) was one indicator of an enhanced law enforcement response to the crime of parental abduction.

Parental Abduction as a Case-Handling Priority

With the exception of the San Diego County District Attorney's and Hudson County Sheriff's Offices, all criminal justice agencies reported that parental abduction cases constituted only an estimated 1 to 5 percent of their workload. Some perceived parental abduction cases as "low priority" given their agencies' limited staffing and the high volume of other cases they were assigned to handle. This did not mean, however, that personnel in these offices had not developed some expertise in the handling of parental abduction cases. For the most part, these experts were detectives assigned to the departmental unit responsible for the investigation of child abuse, parental and stranger abductions, and runaway youth.

At sites where agency staff had developed expertise in parental abduction or a specialty unit had been created, such as in Hudson and San Diego Counties, it was clear that the initiative of skilled and concerned staff contributed to an enhanced criminal justice system response. However, specialized systems were not always institutionalized within an agency and might not exist if specialized staff were no longer employed by that agency. Of the 12 sheriff's offices and police departments contacted, only 5 had written policies governing the processing of parental abduction cases. San Diego County was the only site where a specific criminal justice agency, the District Attorney's Office, was mandated by law to intervene in a case of parental abduction.

Case Processing and the Impact of Court Orders on Police Action

With the exception of Utah, the States visited were governed by laws that could be interpreted to prohibit custodial interference both before and after the issuance of a custody order.4 Statutes in California, Florida, and Washington expressly outlawed custodial interference prior to the issuance of a custody order. Although Arizona's statute was less clear as to whether intervention is authorized before a custody order is granted, the Pima County prosecutor's office interpreted case law as allowing intervention in such cases. In Hudson County, NJ, despite the statute's lack of clarity, law enforcement officials reported that they would, at a minimum, investigate a complaint of parental abduction to ensure that the child was safe and at the same time refer the aggrieved parent to the family court to obtain a custody decree.

Generally, law enforcement personnel in these six States responded to some degree to a complaint of parental abduction, even when an aggrieved party did not have a custody order. In at least three jurisdictions visited, the degree of response (e.g., patrol officer sent to scene, followup contact with involved parties) varied, depending on whether a court order existed or whether a child was at risk of harm. In the other three counties, a governing custody order had no impact on the degree of response because a patrol officer was automatically dispatched to the scene or an investigation was conducted to verify the legitimacy of a complaint. At a minimum, in all sites, even if no court order existed, police would travel to the scene of the complaint to assess a child's well-being and, at the same time, refer parties to local civil courts, legal services or pro bono programs, or the private bar for assistance in filing a petition for custody.

Visitation Interference

Visitation interference, or denial of access, encompasses the situation in which a child's legal custodian prevents a parent or individual with court-ordered visitation from exercising those rights. Almost all the law enforcement agencies visited reported they would respond to complaints of visitation interference by sending a patrol officer to the scene or attempting to investigate the matter over the phone. Whether police enforced visitation orders depended on the specificity and clarity of the order. Also, not all responses to visitation interference reports were immediate, with some agencies believing that the interference should be of a "protracted" nature. The statutes of five of the six States visited prohibited interference with a visitation or access order. In three of these five States, violation of a visitation order could constitute a felony.

Preparation of Crime Reports

In all jurisdictions, law enforcement personnel prepared a crime report upon receiving a complaint of parental abduction. Whether an incident of custodial interference would be labeled as such varied among jurisdictions. In some sites, a custodial interference offense could be classified as a "miscellaneous" offense, a "civil matter," or a related offense (such as domestic violence or assault).

Entry Into the NCIC Database

The National Child Search Assistance Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 5780) requires that State and local law enforcement agencies take a report on a missing child and enter descriptive information on that child into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database without a waiting period, regardless of whether the abduction constitutes a criminal violation. The Federal Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984 (42 U.S.C. § 5772(1)(A) and (B)) provides that for purposes of NCIC entry, a "missing child" is defined as

any individual less than 18 years of age whose whereabouts are unknown to such individual's legal custodian if—

(A) the circumstances surrounding such individual's disappearance indicate that such individual may possibly have been removed by another from the control of such individual's legal custodian without such custodian's consent; or

(B) the circumstances of the case strongly indicate that such individual is likely to be abused or sexually exploited. . . .

Agency personnel reported varying practices as to the entry of information on parentally abducted children and perpetrators into the NCIC database. It was the practice in some jurisdictions not to enter information on a parental abduction case unless the child's whereabouts were "unknown," an arrest warrant had been issued, or the abductor had fled out of State.

Contact With the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Pursuant to the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980 (28 U.S.C. § 1738A), the FBI is authorized to investigate cases in which children have been abducted by parents or their agents across State lines or out of the country. In these cases, State or local law enforcement authorities would seek the issuance of a Federal Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) warrant to enable the FBI to investigate a fugitive parent's whereabouts.

The majority of law enforcement personnel reported minimal contact with the FBI. They related that the FBI was involved in only a few or none of their cases, and their comments reflected a possible underuse of FBI resources. One respondent recommended that the FBI become more involved with case investigation once a UFAP warrant had been issued and noted a lack of followup on the FBI's part. Another perceived the FBI as "jumping" on a case quickly if a child were taken out of State. Several viewed their working relationship with the FBI as "good."

Use of State Missing Children's Clearinghouses

Photograph of anxious children in the back seat of an automobile. All States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico now have State missing children's clearinghouses. Depending on the jurisdiction, clearinghouses can have a role in educating the public on missing children's issues, can be instrumental in coordinating agency services aimed at child recovery, and, in specific cases, can provide assistance to law enforcement agencies in recovering children.

With the exception of personnel in three counties, investigators appeared to underuse State missing children's clearinghouses. These investigators seemed unaware of the existence of clearinghouses in their States or, if they were aware, did not convey to interviewers that they accessed clearinghouse services.

Other Support Services

Agency personnel have had varying experiences with other support services. Most were not aware of or had never used the Federal parent locator service. Although the majority were familiar with the publications of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), it was less clear whether they were aware of NCMEC's training programs and provision of technical assistance in individual cases.

Access to Prosecutors

All law enforcement agencies had 24-hour access to prosecutors who could advise them on relevant legal issues. In at least three jurisdictions, agency personnel had direct access to a prosecutor specializing in custodial interference cases.

Involvement of Child Protective Services

At all sites, agencies maintained a policy that a referral would be made to the local child protective services agency in parental abduction cases in which a child was endangered or at risk of harm. In these cases, law enforcement personnel would have the authority to remove a child from a threatening situation.

Training and Specialized Knowledge

With the exception of the sites that had specialty units (Hudson, Pima, and San Diego Counties), training on parental abduction issues was "on-the-job." In the jurisdictions that had formal training, the topics included Federal and State criminal custodial interference laws, the psychosocial aspects of the crime, written policies and procedures involving case processing, effective interventions, and the interplay between the criminal and civil systems in resolving custodial interference disputes.

Most of the personnel interviewed were knowledgeable about their State's criminal custodial interference laws. Sites with a large immigrant population—Hudson, Pima, and San Diego Counties—also had personnel familiar with the handling of international abduction cases. Personnel at these three sites were knowledgeable about the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Abduction and knew how to access the services of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Customs Office, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for assistance in locating the abductor and recovering the abducted child.

Prosecutors in Pima and San Diego Counties had become specialists in the field of parental abduction and were viewed as national experts. In the other four counties, although prosecutors were familiar with their State laws addressing criminal custodial interference, they had relatively limited experience with applicable State civil laws, primarily because they did not practice in civil or family courts and did not specialize in custodial interference. On-the-job training was the norm for prosecutors in these cases.

Criteria for Filing a Criminal Complaint

In all jurisdictions, the number of criminal custodial interference complaints filed was quite low. For example, in San Diego County, where the District Attorney's Office received as many as 1,500 calls regarding custodial interference per year, only about 350 cases were formally opened and, of these, only an estimated 30 criminal complaints were filed each year. Most, if not all, prosecutors reported that prosecution may not be in a child's or family's interest and that the most important priority was to recover the child safely and expeditiously. The consensus was that prosecutors had to evaluate each case individually before initiating prosecution.

Typically, only custodial interference was charged in these cases. In two jurisdictions visited, prosecutors also filed charges of child endangerment, burglary, or assault related to domestic violence. Only Pima County actively prosecuted misdemeanor visitation interference cases through the county and city attorneys' offices.

The criteria for filing a criminal complaint varied between jurisdictions. The following factors were among those identified by prosecutors as influencing their decisions to prosecute:

  • The child and/or abductor could not be located, or the abducting party refused to return the child.

  • The custodial interference was for a permanent or protracted period (e.g., 2 to 3 months).

  • The abductor crossed State lines or fled the country.

  • A custody or visitation order had been violated.

  • Evidence existed of repetitive criminal conduct on the part of the perpetrator.

Extradition of Offender

In most sites, offenders were rarely extradited. One explanation was the expense involved in extraditing the abductor, especially if he or she were in a distant location. Extradition was more likely to occur in jurisdictions in which prosecutors' offices had a unit employing staff who specialized in parental abduction cases.

Case Disposition

The majority of cases filed in all six jurisdictions resulted in plea bargains or dismissals. Individuals convicted of custodial interference usually received probation with conditions (e.g., they had to pay restitution to the victim, attend parenting skills classes, or stay away from the victimized child). Jail time was extremely rare. It appeared that defendants were incarcerated, either prior to or after a conviction, only when they refused to disclose a child's whereabouts.

According to prosecutors, parental abduction cases were rarely tried by a jury or judge. Three jury trials were reported, one in each of three sites in which case files were tracked. Bench trials (cases in which the judge determines guilt or innocence) occurred with some frequency only at one site that actively prosecuted visitation interference cases. Prosecutors perceive parental abduction cases as extremely difficult to try. Not only must they prove the elements of an offense, they must refute the defense that the abductor acted to protect the child from the other parent's alleged abusive behavior.

Victim Advocacy Programs and Reunification Services

With the exception of Pima and San Diego Counties, victim advocates had a minimal role in assisting parents and children prior to and after a child's recovery. The victim witness advocate of the Pima County Attorney's Office and the investigation specialists of the San Diego District Attorney's Office have been instrumental in getting aggrieved parties access to civil court and legal services and providing assistance during the reunification process.

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