It can be devastating and overwhelming when a parent realizes the other parent has taken their child without their knowledge or consent. While they may feel helpless at that moment, custodial parents have legal rights and options to get their children back after a parental abduction. But what qualifies as parental abduction, and how can they ensure their child is safely returned as quickly as possible? Here’s what you need to know.
What is legally considered child abduction by a parent?
Parental abduction, also referred to as parental kidnapping, occurs when one parent takes a child without the consent of the other parent. Whether there is a custody agreement in place or not, it is unlawful to take a child without the other parent’s consent. The parent who takes the child can face both criminal charges and civil consequences for this action.
When Parents Are Married
When parents are married, they both have equal custody rights to their children. However, if there is a custody order entered by a court, it is legally binding and kidnapping laws go into effect. A parent who withholds a child after the court order is entered is in violation of that order and may be guilty of parental abduction.
When Parents Are Unmarried
If the parents of a child are not married, full custody goes to the mother unless there is a legal custody arrangement with the biological father. The father must prove paternity before a court issues a custody order. When a father keeps his child from his mother but is not married to her or does not have a custody order, it may be considered parental kidnapping.
Is parental abduction a common occurrence?
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a parent or family member to take a child when there are familial disputes. In fact, it’s rare for minors to be taken by complete strangers. It’s much more prevalent that children are abducted by their parents.
It’s important to note that it is still a crime to take a child even when children agree to go with the parent. They may not know about custody issues or that going with the parent means they are legally being kidnapped. However, this does not change the fact that taking a child without going through the proper legal process is against the law.
When is parental abduction most likely to happen?
In most cases, parental kidnapping happens when a parent is unhappy or frustrated about co-parenting arrangements and feels they need more time with the child. Some examples of common situations in which parental kidnapping occurs include:
- Before a court issues a custody order
- During legal separation or divorce cases
- When parents disagree on how to raise a child
- A parent disagrees with a custody order
- Parental alienation
How does parental abduction impact child custody?
Something that factors into a court’s custody decision is the probability of a parent supporting their child’s relationship with the other parent. For this reason, parents who abduct their children or purposefully keep them away from the other parent may get limited custodial rights. Parental kidnapping is serious and shows the parent’s unwillingness to be supportive of the other parent’s relationship with their child.
However, family courts prioritize the child’s well-being above all. That means there are some scenarios in which a judge may factor the circumstances differently. Domestic violence, for example, is something a judge will take into consideration when parental abduction is involved with child custody.
How can parental abduction affect children?
The effects of parental kidnapping can be incredibly detrimental to children. Even when children are abducted by a parent they know well, it is still traumatizing and emotionally exhausting to be separated from the other parent, family, friends, and everything that is familiar to them. The stress of being ripped away from their lives can leave permanent psychological scars.
According to child psychology experts, some effects of parental kidnapping on children include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Fear of windows and doors
- Wetting the bed
- Fear of authority
- Fear of strangers
- Depression and anxiety
- Issues in school
- Problems with peers
What should you do if your child is abducted?
If your child is missing and you suspect parental abduction, you should contact the police immediately. Let them know the situation and provide as much information as possible. Be sure they enter your child’s details into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and you get the NCIC number for reference. You should also:
- Register your child by contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
- Contact your child’s friends to see if they know anything
- Collect recent pictures of your child
- Contact family members to alert them of the situation
After you speak with the police, you should seek further assistance from a parent advocacy group that can help you with the next steps. You will most likely need to work with a family law attorney who can ensure your custodial rights as a parent are enforced.
Who can help when your child is taken by the other parent?
If your child was taken by his or her other parent without your consent, you are not alone. There are resources and advocates who can help you locate and recover your abducted child—even outside of the United States.
For example, there are non-profit organizations that will work with parents to cover the expenses of flights, hotels, and other travel arrangements to help them find missing children. This way, they can focus on recovering their child even if they don’t have the funds to do it on their own. These groups can also help you understand your rights and connect you with legal professionals who will take action right away.