Implications of This Study

Emerging from this study is a picture of a criminal justice system paying relatively scant attention to the crime of parental abduction. As reported in NISMART, an estimated 155,800 children are victims of serious parental abductions in the course of a year (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990), yet research from this current study indicates that only 30,500 police reports are officially registered and only an estimated 4,500 arrests for parental abduction are made. Of parental abductions coming to the attention of prosecutors, only 9,200 cases are officially opened and only 3,500 criminal complaints are actually filed. Even allowing for the fact that a single reported case may involve the abduction of more than one child, these figures imply a very low response rate overall.

Although parental abduction is a crime in all 50 States and the District of Columbia, this study's findings reveal that criminal justice agencies have not implemented training and other programs that would educate their staff about custodial interference and enable them to respond more effectively. As stated earlier, this study's findings indicate that the majority of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors' offices do not have written policies and procedures governing the processing of parental abduction cases, do not train staff in how to respond to these cases, and do not have special programs designed to specifically address the crime.

However, it should be noted that during site visits, several jurisdictions were identified that have developed promising approaches to handling parental abduction cases. The characteristics unique to the majority of jurisdictions visited that contributed to an enhanced criminal justice response were the following:

  • Statutory authority to intervene.

  • Agency leaders and staff committed to combating parental abduction.

  • Personnel who specialize in the handling of parental abduction cases.

  • Coordinated agency response.

  • Good agency management practices.

  • Access to supportive services (e.g., legal, family court, mediation, reunification, and visitation supervision services) for agency staff and left-behind parents.

The remainder of this section presents strategies and recommendations for legal, programmatic, and policy reforms to enhance the criminal justice system's response to parental abduction.

Legal Reforms

Enact comprehensive criminal parental abduction statutes, such as the model Parental Kidnapping Crime Act. The first step in implementing an enhanced law enforcement response to parental abduction is for a jurisdiction to evaluate its current State criminal statutes and case law relevant to this crime. If criminal justice agencies are to respond effectively to the crime of parental abduction, laws must support their efforts. Parental abduction will not become a law enforcement priority unless laws are enacted that authorize law enforcement intervention and designate the offense a felony.

One model of a comprehensive and uniform parental abduction statute is the Parental Kidnapping Crime Act.6 Those interested in enhancing their criminal justice system's response to the crime of parental abduction should review this model statute, carefully contrasting it to their State's existing statute. As indicated in its introduction, the "Act is intended as a substitute for existing laws that cover the issues addressed in [the] statute." The Act can also serve to enhance the effectiveness of those statutes that are already for the most part in conformity with it. The Act's primary goal is to produce statutory uniformity among States because

[a] uniform approach to the nationwide problem of parental kidnapping will send this message to parents: There is no safe haven for child abductors. Every State treats child abduction as a punishable offense according to the same terms. Faced with predictable criminal consequences for parental kidnapping, more parents are apt to seek civil solutions to their child custody problems, which is in the best interests of children. (Uthe, 1996:iii)

Briefly, the Act prohibits parental kidnapping that substantially deprives another of his or her right of custody or visitation whether a child has been removed from a particular State or a custody order has been issued. Of particular note to law enforcement personnel are provisions of the Act that authorize them to take a child into protective custody under specified circumstances, including if the child "reasonably appears" to be a missing or abducted child. These provisions also state that "[a] law enforcement officer and a prosecutor and his or her representatives shall not be liable for actions taken pursuant to this Act."

Enact State statutes modeled after California's law and the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act that authorize prosecutors to investigate and prosecute custodial interference complaints, including filing pleadings in civil or family court proceedings necessary for the abducted child's recovery. In addition to California Family Law Code 31303134, Title II of An Act To Expedite Enforcement of Child Custody Determinations7 addresses the role of prosecutors and law enforcement in taking civil action to enforce custody orders. For example, the Act provides among other things that law enforcement personnel are authorized to seek a court order granting them the right to take temporary custody of a child in cases in which they would have to travel out of State to recover an abducted child and/or pick up an offender during extradition proceedings.

The Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, approved in 1997 by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, contains very similar provisions. Section 315 gives prosecutors statutory authority to take any lawful action, including using a proceeding under the Act to locate a child, obtain the return of a child, or enforce a child custody determination. The prosecutor may take action if there is an existing custody determination, a request from a court, a reasonable belief that a criminal statute has been violated, or a reasonable belief that the child was wrongfully removed or retained in violation of the Hague Convention. Section 316 authorizes law enforcement personnel to assist prosecutors in carrying out their responsibilities under the Act. States should consider adopting the Act, including these innovative provisions.

Modify the Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984 to ensure that information on all parentally abducted children is entered into the NCIC database immediately upon law enforcement's receipt of a report. Site visits revealed that the Missing Children's Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5772 (1)(A) and (B)) is generally interpreted to mean that if a child's whereabouts are known to the child's lawful custodian, information regarding the child and the abductor need not be entered into the NCIC database. However, even in cases in which a child's whereabouts are known by the lawful custodian, there is always the serious risk that the abducting parent will flee, possibly immediately; will subject the child to abuse or neglect; or will be involved in other criminal conduct. Clarifying the Federal law (i.e., clarifying the definition of "missing child") so that information on all parentally abducted children is entered into the NCIC database will ensure that these entries are made more uniformly among States and will facilitate intrastate and interstate communication among law enforcement agencies. It will also enhance the ability of prosecutors who have or may acquire the civil authority to locate and recover abducted children pursuant to the aforementioned Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.8

Programmatic and Policy Reforms

Photograph of police officer sitting in a patrol car working on a computer. Recognize that parental abduction is a serious form of child maltreatment and is a crime that must be effectively investigated and prosecuted. Leaders of criminal justice agencies should advocate for sufficient staff, enhanced computer technology, and other resources so that staff are able to make the crime of parental abduction a case priority. Interviews conducted during the study's site visits revealed that criminal justice system personnel were overwhelmed with handling cases of serious violence and other crimes. Although those interviewed perceived parental abduction as a serious, criminal offense, they were also concerned that unless additional staff and other resources were provided, they would be unable to respond effectively. Several interviewees reported the need for sufficient and upgraded computer equipment and access to computer technologies that would allow them to connect quickly to data collection systems (e.g., Experian credit check and Data Quick) and expedite investigations.

Develop and implement written policies and procedures addressing the handling of parental abduction cases. To institutionalize practice and procedure and ensure a uniform, effective response to reports of parental abduction, it is imperative that State and local criminal justice agencies develop and implement policies and procedures specific to the processing of these cases. As a matter of good management practice, all personnel, including supervisors and those on patrol, should be fully trained in and apprised of agency policies and procedures. Agencies should evaluate their existing policies and procedures on the general handling of missing children's cases to ensure that parental abduction issues are addressed. In addition, law enforcement personnel and prosecutors should assess the need for formal written protocols governing the appropriate transfer of cases for purposes of prosecution.

Develop initial and ongoing training programs for all criminal justice system personnel on the handling of parental abduction cases, including the psychosocial aspects of the crime and the interrelationship of criminal and civil forums in resolving custodial interference disputes. Educating all criminal justice system personnel, including patrol officers and management, about parental abduction and effective responses is essential to change the assumption that parental abduction is not a serious crime. The study's findings indicate that, with the exception of a handful of criminal justice agencies, most law enforcement personnel and prosecutors do not receive any specialized training on issues, policies, and procedures relevant to parental abduction. (The criminal justice system's current perception of this crime is very much like its view of domestic violence 5 to 10 years ago.) Briefly, all agency personnel should be familiar with Federal and State criminal parental abduction laws, the psychosocial aspects of the crime, any written policies and procedures addressing case processing, effective interventions, the interplay between the criminal and civil systems in resolving custodial interference disputes, and community and other support services (e.g., mediation, family court, and legal services programs) that may complement law enforcement interventions.9 In addition, to ensure uniformity among the States in the use of NCIC, all law enforcement personnel should receive concerted training on the appropriate and expeditious entry of abduction reports into the NCIC database. Given time constraints for staff training and the number of subjects that must be covered, it may be appropriate to incorporate specialized training on parental abduction and visitation interference concerns into already existing domestic violence and child abuse training. Management and staff should explore the possibility of obtaining technical assistance from the following: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Missing and Exploited Children's Training and Technical Assistance Program.10

Establish specialized units made up of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors skilled in investigating and prosecuting the crimes of parental abduction and visitation interference. Given the complexity of case investigations and recovery efforts and the experiences of criminal justice personnel in Hudson, Pima, and San Diego Counties, agencies should seriously consider establishing sufficiently staffed specialty units to allow for a coordinated and expert response to reports of parental abduction. Patrol officers and line staff still need to be knowledgeable about the issues, but staff specialists can more effectively follow up with necessary investigations, assess the appropriateness of law enforcement interventions, access suitable support services, and ease the burden on line officers in resolving custodial interference complaints. These specialists need not be limited to handling only custodial interference cases, especially in jurisdictions that may not have a high number of such cases. Agencies are encouraged to designate two or more staff members who would be comprehensively trained in all aspects of handling parental abduction cases and, at the same time, be assigned other types of cases. A preferred staffing model would be one such as the Family Protection Division of the San Diego District Attorney's Office, which handles not only custodial interference but also child abuse and domestic violence cases.

Consider establishing local law enforcement missing children's clearinghouses. Local law enforcement agencies should collaborate more effectively with their State missing children's clearinghouses. In conjunction with this, consideration should be given to establishing local missing children's clearinghouses within counties to allow for expert, coordinated responses to parental abduction reports. One model for this approach could be that used in Hudson County, where a number of municipal police agencies refer parental abduction cases to the Sheriff's Office, a county agency that employs staff specialized in the handling of such cases. Recognizing that this type of coordination might not be easy to accomplish, given agencies' individual priorities and interests, those interested in pursuing such coordination should keep in mind that this approach could be cost effective and ease the burden on municipal police departments in investigating parental abduction cases.

Develop and implement written interstate and intrastate protocols for handling cases that involve the investigation and/or prosecution of parental abduction in more than one State or within more than one municipality in a State. Criminal justice agencies, especially those located in neighboring jurisdictions, should examine whether interstate and intrastate written protocols need to be developed to reduce the chances that jurisdictional disputes related to agencies' responsibilities will arise during case investigation and prosecution. For example, in the Nation's Northeast corridor, which is made up of several large metropolitan areas, parental abductions could easily result in the crossing of State lines. If a kidnapped child were taken from the District of Columbia to Maryland, would Maryland law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to assist in investigating the child's whereabouts and, if so, what would be the level of assistance? Questions like these could be answered in interstate and intrastate written protocols.

Clarify the role of the FBI in investigating cases of parental abduction and actively seek the FBI's assistance in appropriate cases. This study found that the FBI may not be as actively involved as it might be in identifying the whereabouts of abductors.11 Criminal justice system personnel may be unaware of the role the FBI can play in investigating these cases, and State and local law enforcement personnel may be concerned about sharing investigative responsibilities. Information on the FBI's role in handling parental abduction cases needs to be disseminated through training and other programs to State and local law enforcement personnel and the general public.12 In addition, Federal law enforcement authorities' handling of parental abduction cases warrants further study, including assessing the extent of their involvement in investigating abductions pursuant to the Fugitive Felon Act and investigating and prosecuting international abductions pursuant to the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act.

Learn about State missing children's clearinghouses, work with them to improve coordination and use of services, and advocate for enhanced clearinghouse funding. Given the low priority that most law enforcement agencies place on parental abduction cases and the general lack of knowledge about the crime and its handling, it is not surprising that missing children's clearinghouses may be underused and, consequently, underfunded. This study revealed the need for enhanced communication between local law enforcement staff and State clearinghouses so that agencies can better understand a clearinghouse's role in providing technical assistance. Police need to be better informed of their State's clearinghouse operations and should know how to access its services. Collaboration between clearinghouses and local law enforcement is essential if the clearinghouses are to provide the services most useful to law enforcement.

Advocate for the development and continuation of support services that are instrumental in preventing and resolving custodial interference disputes and that complement criminal justice system intervention. Criminal justice system personnel who are in a position to advocate for enhanced support services should seek to develop and maintain cost-effective support services that can prevent abductions and can provide children and their families greater access to civil forums to resolve custodial interference disputes. This support can include legal services and self-help legal programs, family court services, mediation, supervised visitation programs, and educational forums on parental abduction issues. Moreover, serious thought should be given to appointing independent counsel for children in civil proceedings and developing programs to assist in the reunification of children with their parents. Support services offered in both civil and criminal arenas can be instrumental in reducing the need for criminal justice system intervention and the risk of trauma to the abducted child.

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