I've often heard people say, when told that the other parent ran off with the parties' child or children: "Oh well. At least the children are safe. How bad can it be if the child is with his mother (father)?" It's easy to generalize and think that just because it's a parent and not a stranger who took the child that the child is "safe."
For many years, I have been helping parents recover children abducted by the other parent. (In two cases, it was an aunt who took the child after the custodial parent had died and a grandmother who took the child after her son lost custody). I've come to realize that the fact that a parent is the abductor or "taking parent" [hereafter "TP"], does not mean that the child is unharmed.
This is what the US Department of State Office of Children's Issues says about the effect on children of abduction by one of the parents:
The Human and Social Cost of International Parental Child Abduction:
International parental child abduction (“IPCA”) is a tragedy which abruptly and brutally breaks the relationship between a child and his or her left-behind parent (“LBP”). When a child is abducted across international borders, the difficulties are compounded for everyone involved. IPCA jeopardizes the child and has substantial short- and long-term consequences for both the abducted child and the LBP.
Consequences for Children:
Children who are abducted by their parents are often taken from a familiar environment and suddenly isolated from their extended families, friends, classmates, and community. In an effort to evade law enforcement, the taking parents or persons (“TPs”) may relocate them frequently or take them out of school unexpectedly without even time to say goodbye to teachers and classmates. The children may miss months or years of school. They may be prevented from making close friends, and their only close relationship may be with the TP. They may even be separated from their siblings during the abduction. In some cases, TPs change children’s names, birthdates, and their physical appearance to conceal their true identities. Abducted children may be told that their other parent is dead, does not want them, or has not tried to see them.
As a result of their parents’ choices, abducted children are at risk of serious emotional and psychological problems. Research shows that recovered children often experience a range of problems, including anxiety, eating problems, nightmares, mood swings, sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, resentment, guilt, and fearfulness. As adults, individuals who were abducted as children may struggle with identity issues, personal relationships, and possibly experience problems in parenting their own children. Individuals who were abducted and recovered must also face the task of redefining their relationship with the TP. There is often the perception that since the TP is a parent, he or she must have acted in the child’s interests in taking the child away.
If and when children are reunited with their LBP, the reunification process may be difficult. They may find that they no longer have a relationship with that parent or even a common language. Children who are reunited with their LBP may be distrustful of the LBP and question why that parent did not try harder to get them back. They may find that the LBP has remarried and that they have a new, unfamiliar stepparent or siblings. Children who were abducted when they were very young may not even remember life with the LBP.
Consequences for Left-Behind Parents:
Many IPCA cases have similar fact patterns. The trauma of IPCA often begins when an LBP returns home to find that the other parent has taken the children abroad and has no intention to return home. Another common occurrence involves one parent who allows his or her children to travel abroad to visit the other parent or the other parent’s family, and the other parent does not allow the children to return home. LBPs encounter substantial psychological, emotional, and financial problems in fighting for the return of their children. They may be paralyzed by helplessness and the sense that they do not know where to start in the process of recovering their child. When the child has been abducted across international borders, LBPs may face unfamiliar legal systems as well as significant cultural differences and linguistic barriers.
LBPs experience a wide range of emotions, including betrayal, sadness over the loss of their children or the end of their marriage, anger toward the other parent, anxiety, sleeplessness, and severe depression. The emotional stress does not necessarily end when the children are returned, because parents may worry about re-abduction and their own personal security while struggling to restore a relationship with their child.
The financial impact of IPCA to LBPs can be substantial. An LBP may lack the financial resources to travel abroad to visit the children, even if the TP permits access to the children. Other obstacles LBPs may face include insufficient funds to hire an attorney in the United States or abroad; inability to locate an appropriately skilled English-speaking attorney abroad; and inadequate funds to hire translators, interpreters, or professional counselors. Although IPCA has far-reaching consequences, its significance is not widely understood.
The Dangers of Re-Abductions:
LBPs face a substantial challenge in trying to navigate a foreign legal system to fight for their child’s return while enduring incredibly high levels of personal stress and grief. Many become frustrated with the delays and high legal expenses and may contemplate taking action outside of the legal framework by traveling to the country where the child has been taken and abducting the child back to the home country or another country, or hiring someone to this job. While the fear and desperation behind this action is understandable, extra-judicial recovery of an abducted child often violates both foreign and U.S. law, exposes the child to additional emotional and sometimes physical harm, and may have a negative impact on the adjudication of the petition for return under the Convention.
I learned first-hand that the damage to the child and parent-child relationship is very real. My friend Jane's child was abducted by her father after he lost a custody battle in the early 1960s. This was long before LBPs had anyone to help them find and recover their child(ren). At that time, there was no uniform body of law to help this mother. The abduction of her beloved only child was a devastating loss to her.
Time passed. Jane re-married. She had other children. Some twenty years later, the phone rang one day. A young female voice said, "This is Susan. I'm looking for my mother. I was kidnapped by my father in 1962. Could you possibly be my mother?" My friend was simply overwhelmed and joyous.
Sadly, however, the Jane's and Susan's parent-child relationship was never to be what it might have been had they not been separated. While Susan was missing, Jane had suffered some serious health complications. Afterwards, she wasn't the same person she used to be. Picking up the pieces wasn't that easy. Susan had grown up, she had education to finish, a career to establish. And, she lived all the way across the country. Susan had been told by her father that her mother was dead. It still wasn't easy as a "twenty-something" to fill in the gaps of the past 20+ years.
It was Jane's and Susan's experience that fueled my interest in helping LBPs find and recover their children. I have never represented a taking parent and I never will. In my experience, almost all of the LBPs I have represented (most of whom I have never, ever met), are fathers. It would be interesting indeed to learn what percentage of TPs are fathers and what percentage are mothers, to see if this conforms to my experience.
What I can tell you is this: Parental abduction is a selfish act done by a selfish person who is determined to prevent (or to render moot) the decision of a court meant to make or enforce a custody determination. That is what the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act and what ICARA are all about--having the court that has the most information about a child make a custody determination, and having a determination that is binding and from which all parties move on.
The inability of some parents to "give up"--to accept a court's decision--can be devastating to all involved. Parents should really think long and hard about the consequences of a parental abduction before it occurs.
Part I in this series: Parental Abduction | The Emotional and Social Cost explains how children and left behind parents are affected by parental abduction.
Part II in this series: Prevention of Parental Abduction | Recognizing the Red Flags explains how to recognize the signs that parental abduction is a high risk.
Part III in this series will provide parents with tools to assist parents to prevent abduction of the children by the other parent.
Part IV will discuss the resources available to parents to help them recover abducted children.
You'll find many other valuable resources on my website http://parental-kidnapping.com. If your child is missing, please contact me to see if I can assist you or your attorney in recovery. I've consulted in many interstate parental kidnappings -- 7 in the past 12 months alone -- and can walk your attorney through the process even if Michigan is not one of the states involved. You can email me firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 231-223-7864 or 231-649-2140.