The interventions described in this Bulletin result from a series of research studies, which are discussed below. Researchers began by undertaking a documentary study of 634 parental child-stealing cases from all files opened by the district attorney in two California counties1 between 1987 and 1990. The purpose was to describe the demographic, family, and dispute characteristics of custody violators and the legal system’s response to parental child stealing (Sagatun-Edwards, 1998). Researchers then drew a small representative sample from the 1990 case records and, 3 years later, conducted indepth interviews and administered psychological tests to 70 parents from 50 families—35 men and 35 women, half of whom were abductors and half of whom were left-behind parents. Researchers systematically compared the demographic, psychological, and dispute characteristics of these abducting families with similar data from 114 parents of 57 high-conflict families (i.e., families with repeated custody litigation) referred by family court services during 1990 (Johnston, Girdner, and Sagatun-Edwards, 1999). This comparison identified the similarities and differences between parents who resort to illegal actions and parents who use legal procedures to resolve custody and visitation disputes. The major characteristics that distinguished abducting parents from nonabducting parents were then arranged into six profiles of parents at risk for engaging in serious custodial interference (Johnston, 1994).

In the second phase of the research, family court counselors from eight San Francisco Bay Area counties used the risk profiles to identify potential custody violators and refer them to specialized preventive interventions. Fifty identified families were assigned randomly to 10 or 40 hours of confidential, free counseling provided by mental health professionals (psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family counselors) with special training in the dynamics of highly conflicted separating and divorcing families and in abduction risk. The counseling intervention sought to accomplish the following:

  • Address the underlying psychological conflicts and disturbed family dynamics that contributed to the impasse in resolving custody disputes.

  • Help parents focus on their children’s individual and developmental needs.

  • Give parents information about abduction laws in their State and the consequences of custody violations.

  • Provide parents with referrals and access to appropriate social, health, and legal services in their communities.

A followup study conducted 9 months after the counseling intervention found that, compared with baseline (precounseling) measures, at-risk parents as a group were substantially more cooperative, expressed less disagreement, and were more likely to resolve disputes over custody issues than before. Incidents of violence between at-risk parents decreased. Most important, only 10 percent of families experienced serious custodial interference during the followup period, compared with 40 percent prior to the counseling intervention. Women generally showed more consistent improvement than men for most of the outcomes measured. There was no evidence that the 40-hour intervention was more effective than the 10-hour intervention (Johnston, 1996), but this finding must be qualified. In contrast to the families that received 40-hour therapist-only services, the families that received 10-hour treatment were linked up with additional services. The families that received 10-hour treatment, therefore, could conceivably have received more services. Of even greater significance was the unanticipated effect that counseling intervention had on both sets of families.

Compared with abducting families identified earlier in the research for purposes of developing risk profiles, the at-risk families assigned to counseling received heightened attention in family court. These families received more explicit court orders and more frequently were subject to judicial hearings, custody evaluations, appointment of a child’s attorney or special master (arbitrator), and supervised visitation. Researchers hypothesize that these court-imposed constraints and monitoring of the families were partially responsible for the positive outcomes observed during the 9-month followup period. If further research confirms this hypothesis, the implication is that early case management in the court—together with brief, strategic, legal, and psychological counseling—may be sufficient to prevent many custodial violations.

1 Research was conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. This location was chosen for several reasons: (1) California’s criminal statute broadly defines parental abduction to include pre- and postcustodial abductions and abductions committed by parents with sole custody, joint custody, and visitation rights; (2) because they are mandated to use both civil and criminal remedies to locate and recover abducted children, district attorneys in California have extensive files on a range of parental abductions; (3) the San Francisco Bay Area’s large, economically and ethnically diverse urban population provides researchers the opportunity to study a variety of situations; and (4) comparative data on litigated custody already existed in this region.

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Family Abductors: Descriptive Profiles and Preventive Interventions Juvenile Justice Bulletin January 2001