Phase 3: Findings From Case File Reviews

In the study's third phase, the criminal justice system's response to parental abduction was further examined through a review of individual case files in three of the jurisdictions visited during the study's second phase—Hudson, Pima, and San Diego Counties. Individual case tracking produced important findings on the processing of parental abduction cases through the criminal justice system and on case characteristics and their influence on case outcomes. It also corroborated many of the findings of the study's site visits.

Conducted in 1995, data collection involved abstracting information from existing paper and computer files in the sites' law enforcement agencies and prosecutors' offices. The final sample included 80 cases in Hudson County (62 from the Sheriff's Office and 18 from the prosecuting attorney's office), 96 cases in San Diego County (all from the District Attorney's Office), and 94 cases in Pima County (80 from the Tucson Police Department and 14 from the county attorney's office).

Figures 13 provide an overview of the characteristics and processing of these cases in the three jurisdictions. Researchers considered various characteristics to determine whether they were associated with the response to and outcomes of parental abduction cases—specifically, whether an arrest was made or arrest warrant issued and whether charges (felony or misdemeanor) were filed in criminal court.5 Across all three sites, 74 complaints of parental abduction resulted in arrests or the issuance of an arrest warrant. Fifty of these complaints resulted in the filing of felony and misdemeanor charges.

Four of the twelve perpetrator characteristics examined were found to be positively associated with whether a case resulted in an arrest. That is, cases with the characteristic were more likely to result in the perpetrator's arrest than cases without it. These perpetrator characteristics are listed below:

  • Race/ethnicity. Perpetrators identified as African American, Hispanic, or "other" were more likely to be arrested than white, non-Hispanic perpetrators.

  • Criminal record. Perpetrators with at least one prior arrest were more likely to be arrested than perpetrators with no prior arrests.

  • Prior law enforcement incidents or complaints between the perpetrator and complainant. A prior complaint involving law enforcement increased the likelihood of arrest.

  • History of drug and alcohol abuse. Perpetrators with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, regardless of the source of that information, were more likely to be arrested.

Nine complainant characteristics were examined for their relationship with case outcomes. Four complainant characteristics were associated (either positively or negatively) with arrests or the issuance of an arrest warrant:

  • Relationship to the child. Cases in which child protective services was the complainant were more likely to result in the perpetrator's arrest.

  • Criminal history. Cases in which the complainant had a criminal record were less likely to result in the perpetrator's arrest.

  • History of domestic violence. Cases in which the complainant had a history of committing domestic violence were less likely to result in the perpetrator's arrest.

  • History of mental illness. Cases in which there was an indication of the complainant's past mental illness were less likely to result in the perpetrator's arrest.

One perpetrator characteristic, prior law enforcement incidents or complaints, was found to be associated with the filing of charges by prosecutors' offices. The complainant's history of committing child abuse was also associated with whether charges were filed in criminal court.

None of the characteristics associated with the abducted child (e.g., the number of children involved in the incident or the living situation of the child) was found to be significantly related to case outcomes. This may be attributable in part to the fact that the majority (60 to 78 percent) of cases in all three sites involved only one child.

Six incident characteristics were examined for association with case outcomes; three were found to be significantly related to arrests and arrest warrants:

  • The use of a weapon or force.

  • The return of the child to the left-behind parent.

  • The removal of the child from the jurisdiction.

The perpetrator was more likely to be arrested or have an arrest warrant issued if a weapon or force had been used, the child had been returned, or the child had been taken out of the jurisdiction during the abduction incident.



Figure 1: Processing of Parental Abduction Cases in Hudson County, NJ
Flowchart showing the processing of parental abduction cases in Hudson County, NJ.
Note: The number of cases is given in parentheses. Also, percentages through the charges-filed level are based on 72 Sheriff's Office complaints. After the charges-filed level, counts include charges filed from both municipal law enforcement and the Sheriff's Office (n=22). Accompanying percentages are based on estimates of all complaints (n=113) from both municipal law enforcement agencies and the Sheriff's Office. Percentages have been rounded.

* This percentage is based on the estimated number of complaints received in municipal law enforcement agencies (n=41), using the ratio of filed cases to complaints found in the Sheriff's Office.


Figure 2: Processing of Parental Abduction Cases in San Diego County, CA
Flowchart showing the processing of parental abduction cases in San Diego County, CA.
Note: The number of cases is given in parentheses. Percentages have been rounded.

Figure 3: Processing of Parental Abduction Cases in Pima County, AZ
Flowchart showing the processing of parental abduction cases in Pima County, AZ.
Note: The number of cases is given in parentheses. Also, percentages through the charges-filed level are based on 178 Tucson Police Department complaints. After the charges-filed level, counts include charges filed from both the Tucson Police Department and the Sheriff's Office (n=20). Accompanying percentages are based on estimates of all complaints (n=209) from both the Tucson Police Department and the Sheriff's Office. Percentages have been rounded.

* This percentage is based on the estimated number of complaints received in the Sheriff's Office (n=31), using the ratio of filed cases to complaints found in the police department.



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