Approximately 800,000 children annually are reported missing, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics—a staggering 2,000 minors daily on average. Family members account for 203,000, more than a quarter, of these child abductions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) claims. In 78 percent of child kidnappings, the offender was the noncustodial parent, according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (“NISMART”).
Among the reasons cited by parents for violating the custody or visitation rights of their mates by abducting their children are to punish the non-offending parent or to compel reconciliation with the estranged parent. Fear of losing custody or visitation rights, and, in rare instances, shielding the minor from an alleged neglectful or physically or sexually abusive parent, are other reasons underlying parental kidnapping.
Under many state laws, a minor’s relative who takes a child from his or her custodian without lawful authority and intends to hold the youth “permanently or for a protracted period,” is subject to prison, a fine, or both. Unlawfully removing the child from the State and exposing the minor to danger is punishable by a fine and a prison term.
Often, an accused parental kidnapper also faces a charge of violating a restraining order. Violation of such an order could result in a fine and prison.
At the national level, the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act requires every state’s appropriate authorities to enforce and not modify (with certain exceptions) any child custody determination made by another state’s court. This full faith and credit provision means that if another state having jurisdiction over a child custody question has pending custody proceedings outside the State, a Florida judge, for example, cannot issue a custody order in a non-emergency care and protection hearing involving the same minor without running afoul of the federal Act. The federal statute prevents two states from concurrently assuming jurisdiction over the same custody matter. It considers the resident state of the child or either parent to be the proper forum to resolve the dispute.
Unfortunately, sometimes—especially in particularly contentious divorce proceedings—family lawyers confront false kidnapping claims. Sometimes, these are brought by a vengeful custodial parent against a defendant parent during the latter’s designated visitation period when a child is returned late to the custodial parent. In such instances, experienced divorce counsel can refute spurious accusations through proof that unforeseen circumstances, such as traffic congestion, a delayed or cancelled flight or unexpected injury or illness caused the visitation to exceed the allotted time.
In other cases, noncustodial parents, fearful that their children are targets of physical or mental abuse by the custodial parent, may not return the child after a scheduled visit.