Shared Custody Could Help Prevent Abductions

By Dianna Thompson and Glenn Sacks

Armed men burst in the door and seize a nine year-old boy. His father resists, and is beaten by the masked intruders. Bloodied and dazed he makes a frantic call to 911, saying "they stole my son, my son!" The person accused of orchestrating the kidnapping is the person one might least likely suspect…the boy’ s mother.

While much attention has been paid to the kidnappings of Danielle van Dam, Samantha Runion and others, the vast majority of child abductors are not strangers but parents, as in the recent abduction of nine-year-old Nicholas Farber of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two-thirds of the kidnappings in Colorado between 1998 and 2001 were carried out by family members, as are the vast majority of the roughly 350,000 child abductions in the United States each year.

According to the US Department of Justice, mothers and fathers abduct their children in equal numbers. Since custodial mothers outnumber custodial fathers four to one, custodial fathers are at a much higher risk of having their children abducted by noncustodial mothers than custodial mothers are of having their children abducted by noncustodial fathers.

There are many different reasons why parents abduct their children. In some cases, like the Farber abduction, the abducting parent is mentally unstable and/or a drug abuser. In others, according to Robert Muchnick, Executive Director for the Center for Children’ s Justice in Denver, the parent abducts because of "power, control and narcissism."

Muchnick explains that parents without custody often feel inadequate and powerless. Seizing the child gives them the "keys to the kingdom" by making them feel like the better parent and also by giving them control over their children.

Many abducting parents are narcissistic, he explains, believing that "abducting the child would be in their children’ s best interest when, in reality, they are only acting to gratify their own desires."

Most experts agree, however, that revenge against a former spouse or partner is the primary motive in the majority of parental kidnapping cases. Such emotions are often the malignant outgrowth of the unjust win/lose child custody system.

For women, losing custody of one’ s children can be devastating emotionally. Also, because courts lean so heavily towards mothers in child custody rulings, mothers without custody often bear the terrible stigma of "unfit mother," even if they ceded custody voluntarily and for healthy reasons.

For fathers, losing custody does not bear the same stigma, simply because few fathers are able to win custody of their children. However, fathers also acutely feel the loss of daily contact with their children following a divorce or separation. Perhaps more importantly, studies show that half or more noncustodial fathers are victims of access and visitation denial or "move-away moms." This unrecognized epidemic often cuts fathers out of their children’ s lives entirely, and can make some desperate or vengeful enough that they resort to seizing their children.

Government efforts to address parental kidnappings, such as the 1980 federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, have not solved the problem largely because it is often difficult for the parent whose children have been abducted to find them and their abductor. What is needed is to reform the child custody system in order to prevent the kidnappings from occurring in the first place.

According to the US Department of Justice’ s Office of Juvenile Justice, children in sole custody are at a far greater risk of being abducted by a parent than children in joint physical custody. One effective way to reduce the incidence of parental kidnaping is to replace the current win/lose, adversarial family court system with shared parenting and the rebuttable presumption of joint physical custody.

Under shared parenting, if divorcing parents are unable to agree on a shared parenting plan, the courts would implement a plan which affords both parents equal physical time with the child or children. Judges would not be able to deviate from this egalitarian arrangement unless there is strong evidence that one of the parents has committed acts which render that parent unfit, such as child abuse or domestic violence.

By assuring both parents that they will be able to remain equal participants in their children’ s lives, shared parenting takes much of the conflict and struggle for power out of divorce. In turn, it will lessen the anger and fear endemic to custody battles--emotions which can lead some parents to commit vengeful and harmful child abductions.

  • Colorado Springs Gazette