How to Respond to – & Prevent – Parental Kidnapping

"Help! My Ex Refuses to Return My Kids From a Visit"

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According to The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Efforts to Combat Crimes Against Children audit report from 2009, the FBI investigated 653 domestic parental abductions between 2000 and 2007. The vast majority of these children were returned home safely. Yet any parent who fears for their children's safety can tell you that it's important to listen to your own intuition and respond quickly to any suspicion that your child is at risk or has actually been kidnapped by his or her other parent.

Question: "What is parental kidnapping?"

Answer: According to Family Abduction: Prevention and Response, from The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, "The term parental kidnapping describes the wrongful removal or retention of a child by a parent." The parent may be the child's biological parent or a step-parent. "Wrongful removal" includes violations against an existing child custody order, as well as refusing to return a child to his or her previously established place of residence in the absence of a child custody order.

Question: "My ex hasn't returned my kids from a visit, and I can't reach him. What should I do?"


  1. Call the police. Local police often decline to get involved in child custody cases, especially if there is no child custody order stating with whom the child resides. However, even if they don't take steps to retrieve your child immediately, logging your complaint with them creates a legitimate paper trail.
    In addition, in cases where there is sufficient evidence that an abduction has occurred, the police may issue an Amber Alert through the local media in an attempt to retrieve your child more quickly.
  2. Contact the court that issued the child custody order. Let the courts know that the non-custodial parent is in violation of the order. They have the authority to involve the local police in pursuing your ex and retrieving your child.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Make every effort to maintain communication with your ex and his or her family—they could be instrumental in securing your child's safe return.

Question: "My ex has threatened on several occasions to keep my kids from me. What can I do to prevent parental kidnapping?"

While parental kidnapping is still an infrequent occurrence, making threats is a warning sign that shouldn't be ignored. According to the Polly Klass Foundation, other warning signs include: suspicions of abuse or mental instability, the sense that your ex feels like a victim of the system, indications that your ex is alienated from others socially, and/or your ex has has the means to flee. This may include a flexible work schedule or not having work at all.

At the same time, it's important to realize that many parents who run off with their kids take that extreme step because they believe their custodial rights are in jeopardy. So the paradox is that encouraging regular visitation can prove to be a protective factor against parental kidnapping. In addition:

  • Keep detailed records of any threats your ex makes. Share this information with your lawyer on a regular basis, too.
  • Keep a record of any information you have about your ex that could help locate him in the event of an abduction. For example, write down the make and model of his cars, as well as his license plate numbers, driver's license number, and social security number.
  • Maintain a file of current photos, including your ex and your children.
  • If there's no custody order in place, file for child custody immediately. This is a vital step in protecting your custodial rights, particularly when you feel threatened.
  • Speak with your lawyer about having specific details included in the custody order that could help prevent parental abduction, such as precise pick-up and drop-off times and regular phone contact during extended visits. Alternatively, ask the courts to require a written parenting plan that includes these details or request a child custody bond.
  • File a certified copy of the child custody order with your child's school, too, and let your kids' teachers and administrators know who is legally allowed to pick them up from school (and who isn't).
  • If your ex lives in another state, file a copy of your child custody order with the courts in that jurisdiction, as well. This way, if your ex attempts to keep the children during a visit, the courts in that state will already have access to the child custody order.
  • If your children have passports, notify the passport office of your concerns and inform them that your children are not to leave the country without your permission.
  • If your children don't have passports, contact your local passport office and have your children added to the Children's Passport Issuance Alert Program.

Remember, too, that being fearful of parental abduction doesn't necessarily mean that your children are, in fact, in danger. But only you can determine whether your fears, and your ex's behavior, warrant further action. When in doubt, contact the police and your local family court.

"Chapter 3: Child Abductions." The U.S. Department of Justice. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012.>.
Hoff, Patricia M., Esq., ed. "Family Abduction Prevention and Response." National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012.>.
"Preventing Family Abduction." Polly Klaas Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2012.>.