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May 5, 2006 | 22:35 GMT

5 mins read

Familial Kidnappings: When the Battle over Children Turns Desperate

Editor's Note: This is the fifth analysis in a series on kidnapping. A preliminary hearing has been set for May 31 in the case of Mary Jane Byrd, a mother who allegedly abducted her 4-year-old daughter from Washington, D.C., 13 years ago in defiance of a court order giving the child's father visitation rights. Byrd was arrested in April on a felony charge of kidnapping by a parent in one of the nation's longest-running missing child cases. Although the phenomenon of familial kidnappings is not new, attention to the subject in recent years has led to tougher laws to deal with it. Most familial kidnappings are carried out to contravene a court-ordered custody arrangement, especially when one parent believes he or she has been deprived of rightful custody. Many cases of familial abductions, however, occur to remove a child from what one parent or other family member perceives is a dangerous situation, such as sexual or physical abuse of the child, or unsafe behavior exhibited by the custodial parent, such as drug abuse or other criminal activity. In many cases, the custody dispute is between the child's biological parents, though other family members, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, sometimes are involved. Children also are abducted by a parent or other family member as a means of controlling or psychologically harming the custodial parent, or as revenge for real or perceived wrongs by one family member against another. In other cases, certain types of mental illnesses suffered by the noncustodial family member, such as paranoid delusions or severe sociopathy, may lead that individual to commit the abduction. This risk can be exacerbated if the noncustodial family member feels court judgments regarding custody are unfair. The latest statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) show that out of almost 798,000 children reported missing in 2002, more than 200,000 — about one quarter — were believed to have been abducted by family members. Unlike other forms of kidnapping, familial abductions are not carried out for monetary gain, to make a political statement or to gain media attention. In most cases, in fact, the kidnapper aims to completely drop off the radar with the child, perhaps with the help of a religious or community group that supports the move. A strengthening of the law in Washington, D.C., changing parental abductions from a misdemeanor to a potential felony, however, is one example of efforts to solve these kidnapping cases. One of the best ways to prevent a familial kidnapping is by ensuring that communications between parents, and between parents and children, are healthy and open. Not only can open communication reduce friction, it also can help the children better understand the rules of custody, perhaps making them less willing to go along on an unplanned trip with an unauthorized family member. Parents involved in a joint-custody situation should work together to establish clear, mutually understood and agreed-upon arrangements. These should follow legally binding custody guidelines, but also leave room for legal review should conditions change. Parents are more likely to abduct when they feel they have no legal recourse. Because of consistent cases of familial abductions from schools, most have enacted measures to guard against these incidents. Custodial parents, therefore, should work with school officials to ensure clear understanding of parental rules about such things as early or unscheduled pickups and identification of individuals authorized to pick up the child. According to a governmental study cited by the NCMEC, there are risk indicators that can provide some advance warning of a plot to kidnap a minor family member. The greatest risk that such a kidnapping will occur is within the first four or five years after a divorce or separation of households, or when there has been a previous threat or actual abduction. Another indicator is the perception by the noncustodial spouse or family member that the child is being abused or mistreated by the custodial family member. Custodial parents also should be alert to the threat at times when relations are especially strained between them and noncustodial family members. If a parent who is a citizen of another country loses custody in a U.S. court, he or she might abduct the children and take them back to their home country. Once there, the legal, political and cultural considerations that come into play can make getting the child back extremely complicated, if not impossible. Parents can take precautions to increase the chances of a favorable resolution to a familial kidnapping. The most effective of these include having good-quality, up-to-date (every six months for children age 6 and under) photos of the children available, as well as photographs of potential abductors. Parents also should know the description and license plate numbers of the other parent's or family members' vehicles. In addition, custodial parents should try not to allow alienation from the other parent to become so severe that they know little or nothing about the other's living arrangements, support systems or circumstances. In many cases, feared abductions turn out to be nothing more than scheduling misunderstandings. However, after taking reasonable steps to resolve the situation themselves, the custodial parent should contact police early and report the abduction. Children, even small ones, also can be educated in this regard. At the very least, they should be asked to memorize their home phone number, including area code, and taught how to use the phone. It also is a good idea, under any circumstances, to have the child's fingerprints on file, even if done with a home fingerprinting kit.

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