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Child Abductions: When Custody Issues Lead to Violence

Analysis of recent FBI child abduction investigations has revealed a disturbing trend.

Child Abductions
When Custody Issues Lead to Violence

06/06/13

An analysis of recent FBI child abduction investigations has revealed a disturbing trend: Non-custodial parents are increasingly abducting and threatening to harm their own kids to retaliate against parents who were granted legal custody of the children.

“Unfortunately, the threat of violence—and death—in these cases is all too real,” said Ashli-Jade Douglas, an FBI analyst in our Violent Crimes Against Children Intelligence Unit who specializes in child abduction matters. “ Most non-custodial parental abductors want retaliation. They feel that if they can’t have the child full time—or any amount of time—then the other parent shouldn’t have the child, either.”

An analysis of all FBI child abduction cases where a motivation was known shows that custodial-motivated abductions—in which a son or daughter is taken against the will of the child and the custodial parent—have increased from 9 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 50 percent in fiscal year 2012. Sometimes the motivation is to convince the custodial parent to stay in a relationship; more often it is to harm the child in an act of retaliation. This trend appears to be on the rise, Douglas said. At least 25 instances of such abductions have been reported to the FBI since October.

“Our analysis indicates that children age 3 years and younger of unwed or divorced parents are most at risk of being abducted by their non-custodial parent,” Douglas added. “And the timely reporting of the abduction by the custodial parent to law enforcement is crucial in increasing the likelihood of recovering the child unharmed and apprehending the offender.” (See sidebar.)

 Quick Reporting Key to Child Safety

There is a common misconception that domestic custodial child abductions are considered a family matter that should not be investigated by law enforcement. In fact, when such abductions are reported to law enforcement, the child should be considered to be in danger—especially in cases when the non-custodial parents have previously threatened to abduct or harm their children, are mentally disabled, or are unemployed or otherwise financially unstable.

“The timely reporting of the abduction by the custodial parent to law enforcement is critical,” said Ashli-Jade Douglas, an analyst in our Violent Crimes Against Children Intelligence Unit. “That greatly increases the chances of recovering the child unharmed.”

Some recent cases:

  • In 2009, a non-custodial mother abducted her 8-month-old son from his custodial father in Texas. She told the father she killed the boy to prevent the father from employing his custodial rights and in retaliation for his alleged involvement with other women.
  • In 2011, a 2-year-old girl was abducted by her non-custodial father in California. A week later, both were found dead. The father committed suicide after shooting his daughter.
  • In 2012, a non-custodial father in Utah abducted and killed his 7- and 5-year-old sons and then committed suicide. He was angry over not being afforded sole custody of the children.

“In contrast to international parental abductions, our analysis indicates that domestic custodial abductions are more likely to have violent outcomes for children,” Douglas explained, adding that a number of factors contribute to this trend. About 46 percent of American children are born to unwed parents, and 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. That usually leaves one parent with custody of the child.

Douglas offers a suggestion to help keep children safe: Custodial parents should inform schools, after-care facilities, babysitters, and others who may at times be responsible for their children about what custody agreements are in place so that kids are not mistakenly released to non-custodial parents.

“The other big takeaway from our analysis,” she added, “is that law enforcement must act quickly in non-custodial abductions to keep children from being harmed. It’s mind-boggling to think that a parent would hurt their child to retaliate against the other parent,” Douglas said, “but in that moment, they make themselves believe that it’s okay.”