Profiles of Parents At
Risk for Abducting
When a parent has made credible threats to abduct a child or has a history of hiding the child, withholding visitation, or snatching the child from the other parent, there is justifiable distrust between parents and a heightened risk for further serious custody violation. This risk profile is usually combined with one or more of the other profiles. In these cases, the underlying psychological and social dynamics that motivate the child stealing need to be understood and addressed. When other risk factors are present, one or more of the following are general indicators of threat of flight with a child:
Interventions. At the request of a concerned parent, the court can take a number of specific steps when an imminent threat or actual history of parental abduction exists. A court order should be in place, specifying which parent has custody, defining arrangements for the child’s contact with the other parent, designating which court has jurisdiction, and requiring the written consent of the other parent or order of the court before a parent can take the child out of the area. If visitation is unsupervised, plans for access for the noncustodial parent should denote times, dates, places of exchange, holiday periods, etc. The court order should also specify consequences for failure to observe its provisions. Parents should be encouraged to keep a certified copy of the custody order available at all times.
An explicit court order outlining the above provisions can be presented to the appropriate embassy or agency providing passports and birth certificates, with the request that the custodial parent be notified if the other parent attempts to obtain copies of such documents without the certified written authorization of both parents or the court. The child’s passport also can be marked with the requirement that travel not be permitted without similar authorization. The child’s and parents’ passports may be held by a neutral third party, and the court may require (or both parents may stipulate) that a substantial bond be posted by the departing parentespecially if the departing parent is leaving the United States on vacation.
School authorities, daycare providers, and medical personnel also should have a copy of the custody order and can be given explicit instructions not to release the child or any records of the child to the noncustodial parent. If possible, relatives and others who might support a parent in hiding a child should clearly understand their criminal liability if they aid and abet in what some State laws consider a felony.
Supervised visitation is a fairly stringent method of preventing parental abduction and is typically used to prevent recidivism in serious cases. It may be difficult to convince a judge to curtail a parent’s access to his or her child this severely without substantial proof that the parent has already committed a crime. High-security supervision is expensive and difficult to obtain, and there are no guidelines for determining how long it should be in force. Parents who have recovered their children after a traumatic abduction typically have tremendous anxieties and often try to insist on supervised visits for years afterwards.
Many parents abduct their child because they truly believe that the other parent is abusing, molesting, or neglecting the child. These abducting parents feel that authorities have not taken their allegations seriously and have not properly investigated their concerns. In these cases, repeated counterallegations are likely to occur between parents, decreasing effective communication and increasing hostility and distrust. Parents who have the fixed belief that abuse has occurredand will continue to occurthen “rescue” the child, often with the help of supporters who concur with their beliefs. Supporters, as previously discussed, might include family members, friends, or an underground network (usually women) that helps “protective” parents (usually mothers) obtain new identities and find safe locations.
In a disturbing number of such cases, the child has been previously exposed to neglectful and abusive environments (e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, or other criminal behavior by a parent). Often, an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual abuse by a father or stepfather motivated a mother to abduct her child. In these cases, children’s protective agencies and courts may fail to take measures to protect the child. Instead, they may trivialize the allegations, dismissing them as invalid or the product of a malicious divorce. Some forms of abuse, such as inflicting emotional abuse or allowing a child to witness domestic violence, do not meet official criteria of direct harm to the child. In other cases, often those involving ethnic minority families living in poverty, parents may not know how to present their concerns to authorities in a convincing manner. In these cases, subsequent investigations are cursory, and courts have insufficient substantiating evidence to take action.
Interventions. The first order of business in cases involving allegations of abuse is to ensure that a careful and thorough investigation of the allegations takes place. Accusing parents are likely to become calmer and more rational if they feel that investigators are taking their concerns seriously. Accused parents are more cooperative if approached with a respectful request to help the investigators discover what might have incited the suspicions of abuse.
During this investigative stage, authorities should take precautions to ensure that there is no ongoing abuse or, alternatively, to protect a parentwho may in fact be innocentfrom further allegations. Such precautions may include supervised visitation, especially if the child is very young, clearly frightened, or distressed and demonstrating symptoms of emotional and behavioral disturbance in response to parental visits. Investigators can show the accusing parent how to respond to the child and how to make accurate observations without confounding the investigative process. They also can counsel the parent on how not to react visibly to the child’s unusual verbal statements and behaviors (e.g., sexualized play) in a manner that might encourage the child to repeat these statements and behaviors to get attention. Whenever possible, this intervention should involve concerned extended family members and other social support persons. Moreover, it is helpful if all relevant professionals involved with the family are authorized by the parents or court to talk with each other so they can support the family cohesively during the investigation and not incite anxiety by offering discrepant, premature conclusions.
Investigatorspreferably with expertise in both child abuse and the dynamics of highly conflicted divorcing familiesshould assemble data about the allegations and the child’s symptomatic behavior and should use the data to formulate alternative possible explanations and reasoned conclusions. Investigators should share any findings with both parents and their support persons. In rare cases, especially if severe psychopathology is diagnosed in both parents and their extended families, the child may be placed in the temporary care of a neutral third party (with supervised visitation to both parents), allowing investigators time to sort out who or what is fueling the claims of abuse.
Professionals working with cases involving allegations of parental abuse should keep in mind that lack of substantiation is not proof that abuse has not taken place. Extreme distrust and anger between parents often are the legacy of unproved accusations and can affect the fragmented, divorced family for years, putting the child at risk for continued emotionalif not physicalabuse. These families need long-term structure for rebuilding trust between parents and ensuring the child’s protection. This structure can include one or more of the following:
In this profile, one parent demonstrates flagrantly paranoid, irrational beliefs and behaviors or psychotic delusions about the other parent. These accusing parents may claim that their former partners have harmed or are exercising mind control over them or their child. The accusing parents usually do not need the support of others in these beliefs; their own convictions are sufficiently fixed to justify what they consider to be urgent and necessary steps to protect themselves and the child.
Although this diagnosis is rare (about 4 percent of the studies’ samples), parents fitting this profile are often the most dangerous and frightening of abductorsespecially if they have a history of domestic violence, hospitalization for mental illness, or serious substance abuse. Typically, they are overwhelmed by their divorce and believe their former partners have betrayed and exploited them. They may be obsessed alternately with desires for reconciliation and fantasies of revenge.
It is important to note that psychotic parents do not perceive the child as a separate person. Rather, they perceive the child as fused with themselves as a victim (in which case, they take unilateral measures to rescue their child), or they perceive the child as part of the hated other parent (in which case, they may precipitously abandon or even kill the child). Marital dissolution and instigation of a custody dispute generally trigger an acute phase of danger for these psychotic individuals, which can result not only in parental abduction but also in murder and suicide.
Interventions. Family courts need to have procedures in place to protect the child in cases involving serious delusional thinking by one parent or both parents. A lethality assessment can indicate how acute the danger is (Hart, 1988).
If the noncustodial parent is psychotic, visitation must be supervised in a high-security facility and the custodial parent should be helped to devise a safety plan for all other times. The psychotic parent’s visitation rights may need to be suspended if he or she repeatedly violates the visitation order; highly distresses the child by the contact; or uses his or her time with the child to denigrate the other parent, obtain information about the other parent’s whereabouts, or transmit messages of physical harm, death threats, or child abduction. If an evaluation determines that reinstatement of parent-child contact is appropriate, visitation typically should begin under supervision, preferably in the presence of a mental health professional.
If the custodial parent or the child’s primary care person is psychotic, extreme care must be taken so that the litigation and evaluation processes do not precipitate abduction or violence. The family court may need to obtain an emergency psychiatric screening and use ex parte hearings (without notice to the psychotic parent) to effect temporary placement of the child with the other parent or a third party while investigators undertake a more comprehensive psychiatric and custody evaluation. In these emergency situations, there should be a confidentiality waiver allowing all relevant professionals to share information about the case with each other. The psychotic parent may need legal representation, and the child may need to have an attorney appointed for any subsequent litigation. The court may need to appoint a judicial officer or special master to monitor implementation of any court orders requiring the parent and/or the child to undergo psychiatric treatment.
Sociopathic parents are characterized by a long history of contempt for any authorityincluding the legal systemand flagrant violations of the law. Their relationships with other people are self-serving, exploitive, and highly manipulative. They are likely to hold exaggerated beliefs about their own superiority and entitlement and are highly gratified by their ability to exert power and control over others. Cases involving sociopathic parents often include a history of domestic violence. As with paranoid and delusional parents, sociopathic parents are unable to perceive their children as having separate needs or rights. Consequently, they often use their children blatantly as instruments of revenge or punishment or as trophies in their fight with the ex-partner. Hence, the sociopathic parent believes that domestic violence and child abduction can be perpetrated with impunity. Like paranoia, a diagnosis of severe sociopathy is rare (4 percent of the studies’ samples).
Interventions. For a parent diagnosed with severe sociopathic personality disorder, confidential therapeutic mediation and family counseling constitute an inappropriate and possibly dangerous intervention. Such interventions are inappropriate because a sociopathic parent lacks the capacity to develop a working therapeutic alliance with a counselor. It can be dangerous because the sociopathic parent may hide behind the confidentiality of the program and manipulate and control the other partiesincluding the counselorto achieve his or her own ends. Sociopathic parents are unlikely to respect agreements made in such a forum unless doing so suits their purposes.
If a sociopathic parent demonstrates blatant disregard of custody orders and violates restraining orders, supervised or suspended visitation is the appropriate response by the court. Access to the child may be reinstated after the parent meets clearly stated conditions, and then only in graduated steps to ensure compliance. Moreover, the court needs to respond immediately and decisivelywith sanctions such as fines and jail timeto any overt disregard of explicitly defined custody and access orders to send a clear message that such violations are guaranteed to be costly. A coparenting coordinator with arbitration powers (as stipulated by the parent and/or ordered by the court) who is prepared to testify in court may be needed over the longer term to monitor the family situation for any further threat of abuse or abduction. Only when control mechanisms such as these are in place can family counseling and therapy be helpful in cases involving a sociopathic parent.
Parents who are citizens of another country (or have dual citizenship with the United States) and have strong ties to extended family in their country of origin have long been recognized as potential abductors. The risk of abduction is especially acute at the time of separation and divorce, when these parents may feel cast adrift from their mixed-culture marriage and may need to return to their ethnic or religious roots to find emotional support and reconstitute a shaken self-identity. Often, in reaction to being rendered helpless or feeling rejected and discarded by the ex-spouse, such parents may try to take unilateral action by returning with the child to their country and family of origin. This may be a way of insisting that the abducting parent’s cultural identity be given preeminent status in the child’s upbringing.
In this profile, parents at risk of becoming abductors are those who idealize their own family, homeland, and culture and deprecate American culture. They are likely to repudiate the child’s mixed heritage. Furthermore, their own homeland may offer more emotional and financial support than is available in a location near the ex-spouse. If the country of origin has not ratified the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction,2 the stakes are particularly high, as recovery of the child can be difficult, if not impossible.
Interventions. Preventive measures for situations in which international abduction is a possibility include the range of actions discussed under profile 1 (prior threat of or actual abduction), especially restricting removal of the child from the State or country without authorization, preventing issuance of the child’s passport, or requiring that the parent’s and child’s passports be surrendered. Difficulties occur when the child has dual citizenship, as foreign embassies and consulates are not under any obligation to honor these restrictions if the request is made by the ex-spouse who is a U.S. citizen. Instead, the court may require the parent who is a foreign national to request and obtain these assurances of passport control from his or her own embassy before granting the parent unsupervised visitation with the child. The foreign-national parent could also post a bond that would be released to the left-behind parent in the event of an abduction. At times of acute risk, investigators can monitor airline schedules so that an abducting parent and child could possibly be intercepted prior to leaving the United States or during a scheduled stopover in a country that is a party to the Hague Convention.3
A person may petition a foreign court to issue an order that parallels the provisions of the U.S. court order and can be enforced in the foreign court’s country. The foreign court order can specify visitation and holiday arrangements, including dates and flight numbers, and can include a provision to return the child to the United States if the child is abducted or detained in the foreign court’s country. This measure is potentially costly and time consuming for the parent who is a U.S. citizen because it usually involves hiring legal representation in the foreign country and crafting a reciprocal order that conforms to both countries’ child custody laws and procedures (Crouch, 1996). The cost, however, may be warranted if it diminishes the risk involved in granting foreign nationals their understandable wishes to visit their homeland with their children if the home country is not party to the Hague Convention. It is also important for all involved parties to know that U.S. laws exclude non-U.S. citizens who abduct a child out of the United Statesand their foreign relatives and friends who assist in keeping a child abroadfrom entering the United States. This information may deter non-U.S. citizens who travel in and out of the United States from being party to child abduction.
Although the above measures can help prevent abductions, they do not address the underlying factors that may prompt parents to abduct their child and flee to another country, nor do they sufficiently deter parents who are highly motivated to abduct. To help these parents settle their internal conflicts, culturally sensitive counseling and mediation are needed to discern and address underlying psychological dynamics. These parents should be reminded that the child needs both parents and opportunities to appreciate and integrate his or her mixed cultural or racial identities. Parents who have idealized their own culture, childhood, and family of origin may need encouragement to adopt a more realistic perspective. It may also be necessary to provide alternative sources of emotional and financial support to help a homesick parent remain in the area and find ways to visit the foreign homeland with assurances for the return of the child.
Several subgroups of potential parental abductors feel alienated from the judicial system. These parents rely on their own informal networks of kin, who may live in another geographical community, to resolve family problemsincluding custody disputes. Listed below are five such subgroups.
Subgroup 1. Parents who are indigent and poorly educated lack knowledge about custody and abduction laws and cannot afford legal representation or psychological counseling that would help them resolve their disputes appropriately. In the research study described earlier in this Bulletin, 38 percent of abducting parents belonged to this subgroup.
Subgroup 2. Parents who have had prior negative experiences with the criminal or civil courts do not expect family courts to be responsive to their plight. In the research study described earlier in this Bulletin, 50 percent of abductors and 40 percent of left-behind parents had an arrest record.
Subgroup 3. Parents who belong to certain ethnic, religious, or cultural groups may hold views about childrearing that are contrary to prevailing custody laws, which emphasize gender neutrality and the rights of both parents. For example, many low-income African Americanswho were overrepresented in this profileconsider childrearing to be the prerogative of the mother and her maternal kin.
Subgroup 4. A mother who has a transient, unmarried relationship with her child’s father often views the child as her exclusive property, and her extended family supports this belief. In the study, almost half of the abducting parents had never married their child’s other parent. Many of the women had assumed they had sole custody and were genuinely surprised, often outright aggrievedespecially if the father had not provided child supportwhen they were informed that the father, by law, had joint rights to the child.
Subgroup 5. Parents who are victims of domestic violence are at risk of abducting their child, especially when the courts and community have failed to take the necessary steps to protect them from abuse or to hold the abuser accountable. Joint custody, mediated agreements, and visitation orders too often leave victims vulnerable to ongoing violence, despite their separation from the abuser. When such victims abduct their child, the violent partners may successfully obscure the facts about the abuse and activate abduction laws to regain control of their victims.
Interventions. Of all the at-risk parent profiles, socially and economically alienated parents, especially women, have the best prognosis for an effective preventive intervention, which is limited only by the lack of helpful community resources. Some helpful resources these parents need include the following:
2 The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, ratified in 1986, is an international treaty that establishes administrative and judicial mechanisms to bring about the prompt return of an abducted or wrongfully retained child, usually to his or her country of habitual residence, and to facilitate the exercise of visitation across international borders. The Convention took effect in 1988, following enactment of the International Child Abduction Remedies Act, a Federal implementing statute. 3 See www.missingkids.com for current signatories to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.