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By Jerome J. Shestack
President, American Bar Association

Each year more than 300,000 children are abducted by a parent in violation of the rights of the other parent and the child. About half of these cases involve a parent concealing the child, moving the child out of state, or doing something else that indicates the parent intends to keep the child indefinitely.

Government-sponsored studies have identified common characteristics of parents who abduct their children. Among the characteristics: prior abduction or threats of abduction; prior criminal record; lack of strong ties to home or state; recently quitting a job, selling a home, closing a bank account, or liquidating other assets; dismissing the value of the other parent in the child's life; support from family or friends for their actions; and the presence of young children in the family (who are more vulnerable to the influence of the abducting parent).

As we commemorate Missing Children's Day (May 21), it is useful to review laws and practices that can help recover abducted children or prevent their abduction in the first place. There are several steps a parent can take:

  • Have an order from the court that specifically prohibits the other parent from removing a child from the state or country.

  • Keep a certified copy of the order in a quickly accessible place.

  • Provide a copy of the order to the U.S. State Department and ask the State Department not to allow the other parent to obtain a passport for the child.

  • Keep a record of the child's fingerprints along with recent photographs of the child.

  • Keep records of the addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, Social Security numbers and passport numbers of the other parent, as well as the other parent's relatives.

  • If a significant risk of abduction can be shown to the court, ask the court for an order that would require the other parent to post a bond or surrender a passport as a condition of visitation; in some cases, a court may allow visitation only under the supervision of an agency or responsible person.

Every state has criminal laws prohibiting abduction of children by parents. In some states, parent child abduction is a felony; in other states, it is a misdemeanor. If a child has been abducted, prompt notification of the police and prosecutor will increase the likelihood of recovering the child. When a child has been taken across state lines, federal prosecutors can issue a warrant for "Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution," and the FBI may assist in the case.

Also, the American Bar Association has worked with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws over the last four years to develop a new law that will help enforce custody and visitation orders and aid in the return of abducted children. The new law, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), is now under consideration by most state legislatures.

When a child has connections to more than one state, the new law will clarify which courts have the power to decide custody and visitation and to modify those orders. The law also allows local prosecutors to assist in locating and returning children by use of the civil justice system, which is often faster than when criminal penalties are used. Under the UCCJEA, the main civil remedy is an order by the judge for immediate delivery of a child to the parent whose rights of visitation or custody have been denied. The parent who wrongly took or retained the child also can be forced to pay the attorney's fees of the other parent.

There are limits to how much the law can control human conduct, particularly when dealing with the intense emotions that often arise when a family breaks apart. But the law can provide remedies for wrongs that have been committed, and parents can take precautions to protect their children from future harm.

Editor's Note: An additional source of information on preventing abductions and recovering children is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, telephone: 800/843-5678.