Even when the kid­nap­per is a par­ent, a child may be at risk

Parental ab­duc­tions are urgent, too, says lawyer Jane K. Sto­ever

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @jane_s­to­ever

When my client told me her abu­sive ex-boyfriend had shown up af­ter a long ab­sence, beaten her and kid­napped their chil­dren, I as­sumed the po­lice would re­spond quickly and is­sue Am­ber alerts. But a D.C. po­lice of­fi­cer re­fused even to write a re­port, dis­miss­ing the com­plaint as a “pri­vate fam­ily mat­ter” and opin­ing, “What safer place for the chil­dren than with their dad?”

We were met with sim­i­lar in­dif­fer­ence from the child-ab­duc­tion unit su­per­vi­sor, who pon­dered, “Isn’t pos­ses­sion nine­tenths of the law?” (No, it’s not.)

The re­ac­tion of the judge in the fam­ily court’s do­mes­tic vi­o­lence unit was equally alarm­ing. She in­cor­rectly ques­tioned whether she had ju­ris­dic­tion, now that the chil­dren were sev­eral states away. And when she learned that my client had de­clined her ex-boyfriend’s mar­riage pro­posal, and that he’d texted that if she wanted to see their chil­dren again she would agree to marry him, the judge said, “Aw, it sounds like he’s just heart­bro­ken.”

Even­tu­ally, per­suaded by my clin­i­cal law stu­dent’s recita­tion of the ap­pli­ca­ble law and by my client’s vis­i­ble bruises, the judge en­tered a tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion or­der that awarded my client cus­tody of the chil­dren. Af­ter sev­eral days on the road, the ex-boyfriend said he would re-

turn with the chil­dren if my client would not pur­sue crim­i­nal charges for ab­duc­tion. She des­per­ately wanted her chil­dren back home with her and read­ily agreed.

I was re­lieved — but also dis­heart­ened that the jus­tice sys­tem seemed to care so lit­tle about the plight of these chil­dren who had been ab­ducted by their abu­sive, es­tranged fa­ther.

(Asked by The Wash­ing­ton Post this past week about parental ab­duc­tions, a D.C. po­lice spokes­woman said that the de­part­ment “treats each miss­ing per­sons case with se­ri­ous­ness and ut­most zeal. We use the press, so­cial me­dia and a va­ri­ety of other av­enues to lo­cate miss­ing chil­dren as quickly as pos­si­ble.”)

On the other side of the coun­try, when I be­gan rep­re­sent­ing abuse sur­vivors in Cal­i­for­nia five years ago, I saw the same state re­fusal to re­spond to ab­duc­tions com­mit­ted by abu­sive par­ents. One client found our do­mes­tic vi­o­lence law clinic af­ter her abuser re­ported her to im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties, fled with their in­fant and went to ex­treme lengths to hide. His ac­tions vi­o­lated mul­ti­ple laws. More­over, we had se­ri­ous con­cerns about the baby’s safety — our client had been granted a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence green card be­cause of the life-threat­en­ing abuse she ex­pe­ri­enced from this man. Yet sev­eral po­lice de­part­ments re­fused to take a po­lice re­port on the kid­nap­ping, even when pre­sented with ev­i­dence of the man’s do­mes­tic vi­o­lence con­vic­tions. I had to read aloud to a po­lice chief the crim­i­nal-code sec­tion de­tail­ing how tak­ing, with­hold­ing or con­ceal­ing a child from some­one who has a law­ful right to the child is the def­i­ni­tion of child ab­duc­tion. Even with a po­lice re­port, though, the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice did not act.

The case haunted my stu­dents in the le­gal clinic, my co-teacher and me. “Have you found my baby yet?” our client asked ev­ery time we spoke with her. And so we con­tin­ued to search for pos­si­ble leads, hired pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors, hung “miss­ing child” posters through­out the re­gion and en­gaged in a me­dia cam­paign that, one year af­ter the baby went miss­ing, proved key to re­cov­er­ing her.

Our so­ci­ety fix­ates on “stranger dan­ger.” Pop­u­lar me­dia por­trays ab­duc­tors as pe­dophiles, se­rial killers and other strangers who prey on chil­dren. Parental and so­ci­etal fears are fu­eled by the well-known mur­ders of Danielle van Dam, Adam Walsh, Polly Klaas, Sa­man­tha Run­nion and Car­lie Bru­cia, and the sto­ries of El­iz­a­beth Smart, Erica Pratt and Jaycee Du­gard, who lived to tell of their kid­nap­pings.

But con­trary to the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive, nearly all child ab­duc­tions are per­pe­trated by fam­ily mem­bers. Stranger ab­duc­tions — cer­tainly alarm­ing and tragic — ac­tu­ally oc­cur with “light­ning-strike rar­ity,” as a re­port in the jour­nal Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Stud­ies put it, in con­trast to the more than 200,000 parental ab­duc­tions com­mit­ted each year that meet the crim­i­nal cri­te­ria and are not merely de­layed vis­i­ta­tions or mis­un­der­stand­ings.

That might seem re­as­sur­ing, but it shouldn’t be. Ab­duc­tion by a par­ent can pose sig­nif­i­cant risk to a child’s safety and well-be­ing. And for the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence sur­vivor whose child is ab­ducted, this is the ul­ti­mate form of abuse.

Parental ab­duc­tion fre­quently is part of a larger dy­namic of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Most left-be­hind par­ents re­port that the ab­duc­tor From left, Kath­eryn, 8, Re­becca, 10, and Les­lie, 7, Gon­za­les were kid­napped by their fa­ther and mur­dered in Cas­tle Rock, Colo., in 1999. Their mother had been re­buffed by po­lice when she sought help af­ter the girls’ ab­duc­tion. phys­i­cally abused them, threat­ened their lives and threat­ened to kid­nap the child be­fore do­ing so. Par­tic­u­larly when the vic­tim­ized par­ent seeks to end the re­la­tion­ship, abu­sive part­ners com­mit ab­duc­tion as a way to ex­ert con­trol, ful­fill a quest for re­venge or hurt them. And it works. Left-be­hind vic­tims re­port that the trauma of los­ing their chil­dren far ex­ceeds any phys­i­cal, sex­ual or men­tal abuse they ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the re­la­tion­ship.

Abu­sive ab­duc­tors may also be mo­ti­vated by a fear of los­ing cus­tody or a de­sire to gain cus­tody of a child. Be­cause such sce­nar­ios are com­mon, and parental ab­duc­tions oc­cur in fam­i­lies in dis­cord, po­lice of­ten dis­miss com­plaints as messy fam­ily sit­u­a­tions, as­sume com­plainants are over­re­act­ing or think that par­ents are em­bel­lish­ing re­ports of parental ab­duc­tion to fur­ther their own cus­tody claims.

Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is also a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor in a smaller num­ber of ab­duc­tion cases in which an abused par­ent seeks to safe­guard a child from harm. Abuse sur­vivors who flee with their chil­dren tend to do so when the courts and law en­force­ment have failed to pro­vide needed pro­tec­tion.

As with stranger ab­duc­tion, chil­dren kid­napped by their par­ents are of­ten trau­ma­tized and harmed. Un­sur­pris­ingly, these chil­dren face greater phys­i­cal dan­ger when the ab­duct­ing par­ent has a his­tory of per­pe­trat­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. A Jus­tice De­part­ment study con­cluded that one-third of chil­dren ab­ducted by a par­ent suf­fer se­ri­ous sex­ual, phys­i­cal or men­tal harm, with many more chil­dren ex­pe­ri­enc­ing other emo­tional and phys­i­cal trauma. The ab­duct­ing par­ent’s de­cep­tion, which may in­volve adopt­ing a fugi­tive life­style, cre­ates its own set of prob­lems. Chil­dren may be pulled out of school, de­nied med­i­cal at­ten­tion, coached to lie and warned away from mak­ing friends. While some ab­duct­ing par­ents re­turn chil­dren on their own and some left-be­hind par­ents suc­ceed in their self-ini­ti­ated ef­forts, 20 per­cent of ab­ducted chil­dren re­main miss­ing for more than a month, and some are never re­cov­ered.

These kid­nap­pings can end trag­i­cally. In one prom­i­nent case, Si­mon Gon­za­les vi­o­lated a re­strain­ing or­der and ab­ducted his three daugh­ters in Colorado in 1999. Their mother sought help from po­lice seven times on the phone and twice in per­son in the hours that fol­lowed, but she was re­buffed with com­ments such as, “At least you know the chil­dren are with their fa­ther.” Gon­za­les went to a po­lice sta­tion that night and opened fire. Af­ter a shootout, po­lice found the bod­ies of the three girls in­side his truck.

De­spite the harms of parental ab­duc­tion, and state and fed­eral laws pro­hibit­ing parental kid­nap­ping and cus­to­dial in­ter­fer­ence, these crimes are not typ­i­cally viewed as re­quir­ing le­gal in­ter­ven­tion. Po­lice re­sponse and pros­e­cu­tion are rare.

The Jus­tice De­part­ment re­ports that although an es­ti­mated 155,800 chil­dren are vic­tims of “se­ri­ous” parental ab­duc­tions each year, only 30,500 po­lice re­ports are of­fi­cially reg­is­tered, 9,200 cases are of­fi­cially opened in pros­e­cu­tors’ of­fices, an es­ti­mated 4,500 ar­rests for parental ab­duc­tion are made, and 3,500 crim­i­nal com­plaints are filed. In a na­tional sur­vey of law en­force­ment of­fices, about half of the 17,000 re­spond­ing of­fices said they al­ways refuse to take a miss­ingchild re­port for a parentally ab­ducted child, in­stead view­ing it as a pri­vate fam­ily is­sue or a mat­ter for fam­ily court.

The fail­ure to ini­ti­ate in­ves­ti­ga­tions, take re­ports or ob­tain pho­to­graphs is con­trary to na­tional guide­lines rec­om­mend­ing that po­lice be im­me­di­ately dis­patched in re­sponse to all com­plaints of miss­ing or ab­ducted chil­dren. Po­lice of­ten in­stead mis­in­form par­ents that the child has to be taken across state lines or be miss­ing for a spec­i­fied pe­riod of time be­fore they can re­spond. Parental ab­duc­tions most of­ten oc­cur dur­ing sched­uled visi­ta­tion with the non-cus­to­dial par­ent, so po­lice in­struct the left-be­hind par­ent to wait, pre­sum­ing the is­sue will re­solve it­self. How­ever, the first few hours are cru­cial for lo­cat­ing an ab­ducted child, and any de­lay fa­vors ab­duc­tors.

The re­luc­tance to in­ter­vene does not re­flect le­gal gray ar­eas. Although the 1932 Fed­eral Kid­nap­ping Act, which made ab­duc­tion a fed­eral of­fense, ex­cluded parental ab­duc­tion based on the pre­sump­tion that par­ents al­ways act out of con­cern for their chil­dren, nu­mer­ous fed­eral and state laws now ad­dress parental ab­duc­tion. For in­stance, the 1990 Na­tional Child Search and As­sis­tance Act pro­hibits law en­force­ment agen­cies from cre­at­ing wait­ing pe­ri­ods be­fore ac­cept­ing a miss­ing-child re­port, re­gard­less of cus­tody sta­tus. Congress went fur­ther with the In­ter­na­tional Parental Kid­nap­ping Crime Act of 1993 and the Uni­form Child Ab­duc­tion Pre­ven­tion Act of 2006. Cur­rent laws could be im­proved — es­pe­cially at the state level, where some states re­quire pre­ex­ist­ing cus­tody or­ders to act and oth­ers lack fam­ily vi­o­lence de­fenses — but the fail­ure to im­ple­ment and en­force ex­ist­ing laws is the first hur­dle.

So how can the fail­ure of le­gal au­thor­i­ties to re­spond to parental ab­duc­tion be ex­plained? Although do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized as a se­ri­ous crime, we still tend to be so­cial­ized to be­lieve that dan­ger lurks out­side the home and that harm doesn’t of­ten oc­cur within a fam­ily. Vi­o­lent crimes com­mit­ted by strangers garner sig­nif­i­cantly more re­sources and at­ten­tion, and are more likely to lead to ar­rests and pros­e­cu­tion, than iden­ti­cal crimes com­mit­ted against fam­ily mem­bers or in­ti­mate part­ners.

At the same time, our so­ci­ety longs for parental en­gage­ment, es­pe­cially by fa­thers. Judges tend to re­ward fa­thers who demon­strate in­ter­est in cus­tody of their chil­dren — over­look­ing his­to­ries of do­mes­tic abuse.

Gen­dered and racial­ized in­ter­ven­tion prac­tices are also telling. The ma­jor­ity of par­ents who abduct their chil­dren, in­clud­ing abu­sive ab­duc­tors, are white men. Yet women are more likely than men to be con­victed and in­car­cer­ated for ab­duc­tion-re­lated of­fenses, even when they are flee­ing to pro­tect their chil­dren from fam­ily vi­o­lence. Stud­ies show that po­lice and courts triv­i­al­ize and dis­trust le­gal com­plaints from women but don’t ap­ply the same skep­ti­cism to com­plaints from men.

And be­yond the con­text of parental ab­duc­tion, the state has shown it­self to be more com­fort­able tar­get­ing, reg­u­lat­ing and puni­tively in­trud­ing on fam­i­lies of color, es­pe­cially poor ones, than it ap­pears to be with white fam­i­lies. For ex­am­ple, poor par­ents of color are dis­pro­por­tion­ately in­car­cer­ated for not pay­ing child sup­port, which is pitched as a crime against the state. Low-in­come women of color who ex­pe­ri­ence abuse are of­ten charged with ne­glect for ex­pos­ing their chil­dren to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or for living in con­di­tions of poverty. Of­fi­cials also in­creas­ingly ar­rest and pros­e­cute abuse sur­vivors who in­flict de­fen­sive wounds, and they in­car­cer­ate vic­tims who refuse to tes­tify against their abusers.

Although state in­ter­ven­tion is un­war­ranted and un­wanted in some fam­ily mat­ters, it is des­per­ately needed to pre­vent and re­spond to abu­sive ab­duc­tors.

Be­cause his­to­ries of vi­o­lence and kid­nap­ping threats com­monly pre­cede parental ab­duc­tion, fam­ily court judges could is­sue more re­stric­tive visi­ta­tion or cus­tody or­ders to pre­vent kid­nap­pings. Law en­force­ment, pros­e­cu­tors and judges also need train­ing on the many laws that fa­cil­i­tate ab­duc­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions, au­tho­rize pro­tec­tive court or­ders, and en­force and pros­e­cute cus­to­dial in­ter­fer­ence or child ab­duc­tion. And they need to be able to dis­tin­guish be­tween the very dif­fer­ent mo­tives and sit­u­a­tions of abu­sive ab­duc­tors and sur­vivor ab­duc­tors. Ex­emp­tions or af­fir­ma­tive de­fenses for fam­ily vi­o­lence vic­tims also need to be avail­able and used.

I woke up on Thurs­day to an email from a fel­low West Coast lawyer who rep­re­sents abuse sur­vivors, seek­ing help re­cov­er­ing a child who was ab­ducted by an abu­sive par­ent to the Mid­west. The par­ent had fled their state with the child in vi­o­la­tion of a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence pro­tec­tion or­der, but, still, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials re­fused to in­ter­vene be­cause the child was with a par­ent.

These chil­dren, and the left-be­hind par­ents who des­per­ately ask, “Have you found my baby yet?,” de­serve the help of our jus­tice sys­tem.

Nearly all child ab­duc­tions are per­pe­trated by fam­ily mem­bers. That might seem re­as­sur­ing, but it shouldn’t be.

Jane K. Sto­ever is a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of law and direc­tor of the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence clinic at the University of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine School of Law.

LEW SHER­MAN/SPE­CIAL TO THE DEN­VER POST

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