For many people, the words “child abduction” bring up images of a child kidnapped by a stranger. However, it may be surprising to learn that most child abductions involve family members. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, stranger abductions make up the smallest percentage of missing children reports. Nearly 80% of child abductions in the U.S involve kidnapping by a family member, with the majority of those involving one of the parents of the child.
Under the 1982 Missing Children's Act, a missing child is defined as any person younger than 18 whose whereabouts are unknown to their legal custodian, usually where the circumstances indicate the child was removed without the legal custodian's control, or consent.
There are a number of reasons that parents or family members may resort to taking their own child. They may be involved in a custody battle with the other parent, and are worried about losing custody. They may also take the child to get back at an estranged spouse or be trying to reconcile with the other parent. In some cases, a parent may take their own child out of concern that the other parent is putting their child in danger, abusing the child, or be preparing to take the child away to another state or country. In most cases, abductions involve attempts to prevent contact with the other parent or to permanently affect custodial privileges.
Almost half of family abducted children are taken by a biological father, with about a quarter of family abducted children taken by the biological mother, with the remaining family abductions involving grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even siblings. Younger children are taken more often than older teenagers, and nearly half of the children taken are returned in less than a week.
When parental kidnappings involve children being taken across state lines, a state may request the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Child Exploitation Task Force. This can result in a criminal arrest warrant issued for the allegedly abducting parent. The FBI may also be involved in international parental kidnapping. Federal jurisdiction over child kidnapping cases comes from the Fugitive Felon Act, under 18 U.S.C. § 1073.
Federal kidnapping charges generally do not apply to child abduction incidents involving a parent. However, if a final court order has terminated parental rights, that person is no longer considered a “parent” under federal law, and they can be charged with a regular federal kidnapping charge, with a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.
International Child Abductions
Federal law does apply when a parent has removed the child outside the United States. International parental kidnapping is a federal crime under the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act (IPKCA). In cases of international parental kidnapping, a parent has removed or retained a child under the age of 16 years old outside the U.S., with the intention to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights. Under 18 U.S.C. § 1204, the penalties for international parental kidnapping include a fine and prison time of up to three (3) years.
In many cases involving international parental kidnapping, a foreign-born parent may believe that by taking their child to another country, they can avoid following U.S.-based court orders regarding custody and visitation rights. However, in some cases, international custody disputes turn into international news incidents, and the local country may not always take the side of the foreign-born parent. Some parents may be surprised to learn that they will also face local criminal charges related to taking their child from the other parent.
The Hague Abduction Convention involves a civil process that applies to international parental abduction cases. It is intended to protect children involved in parental kidnapping, and provide a way for countries, including the United States, to resolve international child abductions and custody disputes. Under the Convention, countries can work together to determine whether or not a child should be returned to their home country, and encourage cooperation in parental abduction cases.
Defenses to Child Abduction Charges
Child abduction allegations are very serious and can result in an innocent person getting arrested and spending time in jail. It can also have damaging effects on a person's permanent reputation within in the community, even if they are later found to be innocent.
There are a number of potential defenses to child abduction charges. In some cases, it may be a case of mistaken identity. In other situations, it may be possible to show that the charges were brought upon false information, or for the purposes of denying the other parent their custodial rights. Taking one's own child can be one reaction to a heated custody dispute, while false allegations of kidnapping or abuse against an innocent parent are also possible. An in-depth investigation by your criminal defense attorney will help to identify all the available defenses to kidnapping charges.
In cases of alleged international parental kidnapping, it is an affirmative defense if the defendant acted within the provisions of a valid court order granting legal custody or visitation rights, and that order is in effect at the time, and was obtained under the terms of the Uniform Child Custody Act.
Another affirmative defense involves cases where the defendant had physical custody or the child under a valid court order, and failed to return the child as a result of circumstances beyond the defendant's control, and the parent made reasonable attempts to notify the other parent within 24 hours after the visitation period expired, and they returned the child as soon as possible. It is also an affirmative defense if the defendant was fleeing an incidence or pattern of domestic violence.
Family and Child Abduction Defense Lawyers
Child abduction is taken very seriously by federal prosecutors. A conviction can result in serious penalties, including fines and jail time. If you become aware of a child abduction investigation, or if someone is threatening child kidnapping charges, you should contact experienced criminal defense attorneys. Ignoring the situation, or simply hoping that everything will work itself out can have lifelong consequences. Your experienced criminal defense lawyers with a record of successfully defending individuals charged with child abduction will be able to identify the issues at hand and develop a successful defense strategy to keep you out of jail and defend your parental rights.