In 2012, three children were living in Gaza after being internationally abducted by their biological father.  The children’s mother signed passport applications for her three children in order for them to go to Gaza with their father for a family event.  The mother was given the information on when the children would return, only for them to never show back up to the United States because their father kept them in Gaza.  In 1999, one child was residing in Brazil after his biological mother internationally abducted him from his father.  The husband was unable to take off work to accompany his wife and child on a two-week vacation in Brazil to visit the maternal family but was able to take his family to the airport.  After arriving in Brazil, the wife called her husband, saying she no longer wanted to be married to him and that she was staying in Brazil with their son.

Cases of international abduction by parents are not as unusual as one might think.  In the year 2012, the number of international parental child abduction cases reported in the U.S. was 799.  The actual number of children abducted in those 799 cases was 1,144 children, all U.S. citizens.  This number just includes the number of reported abductions.  And it is estimated that there are at least as many unreported cases of international parental child abductions.

Could Your Child be at Risk for an International Parental Abduction?

There is a general profile that has been created of parents that may be more likely to internationally kidnap their child.  These include:

  • Parents who threaten to abduct their children and/or have abducted their children before;
  • Parents who believe their children are being abused and have a support group that also believes this;
  • Parents with paranoia or sociopathic tendencies;
  • Parents with strong ties and family support in another country;
  • Parents frustrated with the legal system in the United States who have supportive family and friends.

It is important to remember that these signs do not necessarily mean that your child’s other parent is going to abduct your child; these are signs that you need to make sure you are being more aware of.  It is not unusual for a parent who abducts their child to believe that they know what is best for the child and don’t believe that they should have to share custody of their child with the other parent.  Young children are the easiest to abduct because they don’t know to go for help or do anything to bring attention to their parent taking them.  Some other warning signs and factors that are important to be aware of are:

  • A parent with no source of income/job;
    • A parent who is financially independent;
    • A parent with no real ties to the community they live in;
    • A parent who abruptly quits their job, sells their home, applies for passports;
    • A parent who starts collecting the child’s medical and school records;
    • A parent who has domestic violence and/or child abuse history.

Protecting Your Child from International Parental Abduction

When developing a child custody order, it is important that the order be very specific in regard to the rights of each parent.  You should avoid vague phrases like “reasonable visitation” because the word reasonable can be interpreted very differently by different people.  Joint custody should also be avoided if there has been any history of abduction or the risk of abduction is high.  Your court order should include why the court has jurisdiction in the matter of your child and state that both parents were given the opportunity to present their case to the court regarding custody.  In order for your court order to be able to be enforced nationwide, the court’s exercise of their jurisdiction has to comply with the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA).

Your court order can specify that your child is not allowed to leave the state you reside in without written consent from the other parent.  The court order can also ban a parent from applying for a passport for your child.  If your child already has a passport, the court can require that the passport be surrendered.  If you have information that your child would most likely be taken to a specific country, you can notify that embassy or consulate and provide them with the court order to request any visa requests for your child be denied.

If the risk to your child being abducted by their other parent is high, the court is typically more likely to put protections in the court order to prevent abduction.  The court looks at the following factors: risk of abduction is high, recovering the child would be very difficult, and the abduction would be harmful to the child.

Additional steps to lower the risk of parental abduction or increase your odds recovering your child if they are abducted would be:

  • Have up-to-date pictures of your child;
  • Have a written detailed description of your child (height, weight, hair color, eye color, birth marks, and noticeable physical characteristics);
  • Copies of your child’s Social Security card and passport;
  • Fingerprints of child;
  • Have child learn to use a telephone and how to call the police;
  • Keep schools, daycares, and other child care providers informed of current custody orders;
  • Register your child with Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP).

Controls on Passports

Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP) is a program that allows a parent to register their child (must be U.S. Citizen) into the U.S. State Department’s Passport Lookout System.  The purpose of the program is to send an alert to the parent if someone submits an application for a passport for your child.  The child’s parent or parents are able to object to a passport being issued for the child.  If you object to the passport, all the U.S. passport agencies, U.S. embassies, and consulates are notified.  This system is considered to be an early warning of a possible abduction of your child.

For CPIAP, one or both parents can register the child into the system.  The only requirement is that a parent’s parental rights cannot have been terminated.  Even if your child is registered with CPIAP, a passport can still be issued.  The parent that sets up the alert is allowed to consent to the issuing of the passport or the person trying to get the passport can show they have sole custody of the child or permission of the court to travel with the child out of the country.

If you request a CPIAP alert, you are contacted about the passport application and you have 30 days to agree or object to a passport being issued for your child.  If the person that is applying for the passport is able to show they have the right to get the child a passport, the passport can still be issued, even if you object.

A passport cannot be revoked if your child already has one.  You can register for notification if your child’s passport has an application submitted for renewal.  Passports are unable to be tracked to tell someone where a passport has been used or an exact date and time a person or child left the United States.

Responses to Cases of International Parental Abductions

Parents trying to get their kidnapped children back from other countries would work with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.  First, you would contact your local law enforcement office, where they will do a missing person’s report and put your child into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).  You and the local police would also be working with the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues.

A Yellow Notice can be issued by INTERPOL (International Police Organization) which will notify them if your child goes across any international border connected to their system.  A Red Notice is able to be issued for the parent that abducted the child when a warrant has been issued for their arrest (state or federal warrant).  Your local police office will assist you in connecting with INTERPOL.

Pursuing Criminal Charges

In 1993, the International Parental Kidnapping Act (IPKCA) made it a federal crime for a parent to take and/or keep their child outside of the United States with the intention to interfere with the other parent’s rights to custody.  International Parental Kidnapping is not just a federal crime; it is also a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  If convicted under IPKCA, the punishment is up to three years in a federal prison, but only rarely do prosecutors bring charges under this Act.

When deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against the kidnapping parent, there are multiple issues you need to consider.  If you file charges, it could help or delay getting your child back.  If charges are filed, it would be more likely that police in that country would try to locate the kidnapping parent and most likely, your child.  If an arrest warrant is issued, an INTERPOL red notice is issued, which will ban that parent from being able to cross many international borders.  The issuance of an arrest warrant will also result in the abducting parent’s passport being revoked if they are a U.S. citizen.  A valid U.S. passport is required for remaining in the foreign country.

There are some potential issues for having an abducted child returned if criminal charges are pending.  Under Hague Abduction Convention, many judges would be reluctant to return a child.  Judges would not want to order that a child return to the United States if the parent that abducted child will be at risk of being arrested when they arrive in the U.S., preventing the parent from traveling with their child back to the U.S.  Additionally, a parent that is afraid of being arrested would not want to voluntarily return the child to the U.S. and could look for a deeper hiding location.

As the non-offending parent, you also need to consider the impact on your child.  If the abducting parent is arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned, your child may think that the situation is their fault.  This could be emotionally devastating to your child.  Even if you request that the charges be dropped, the only way the charges can be dropped is if the legal entity that took out the arrest warrant drops the charges.

A criminal warrant gives local law enforcement the power to arrest the parent.  The authorities don’t have any authority to seize the abducted child.  This means that the child could be hidden by their parent with a relative, friend, or neighbor.  Sometimes, a parent that has been arrested will make a deal to have the charges against them dropped in exchange for providing the whereabouts of the child.

The process to bring criminal charges against the parent that abducted your child starts with reporting your child’s abduction to law enforcement where you live.  Next, the local law enforcement enters the child’s data into National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Persons Database immediately after the abduction is reported to them.  The NCIC does not generate criminal charges against the parent that abducted their child.

Your next step would be to contact your local prosecutor’s office to ask them to file criminal charges.  As a parent, you can also go directly to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to report the abduction.  Then, you ask to meet with your local Assistant U.S. Attorney to talk about criminal prosecution against the abducting parent.  You may want to consider hiring a foreign attorney.  They could assist in connecting you with a criminal prosecutor in the country where your child is to try to press charges in that country.  But, courts in other countries might be reluctant to prosecute their own citizen or that court may not consider it a crime to kidnap one’s own child.

Kidnapping Your Child Back

The first question a parent whose child has been the victim of international parental kidnapping would ask is, “Can I kidnap my child back?”  Generally, the answer to this question is no.  Attempting to abduct your child back in a foreign country could result in either civil or criminal penalties in the country you are in, or jail time.  The reason for this is that a U.S. court order is most likely not recognized in the foreign country.  The safest thing to do is to go through the court to try to have that foreign court recognize the U.S. court order.

Reunification Cost

There is a fund to assist parents trying to get their child back through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children administers the fund.