You are a parent, walking along a relatively empty sidewalk, your 7 year-old child holding your hand.

Fifty feet behind you is Walter, a 44 year old ex-convict with a criminal record that includes theft, assault, petty larceny and check fraud. He has never married, but he has a child who he has not seen in over ten years.  Fifty feet in front of you is Patty, a divorced woman with no children, but with a history of miscarriages who is very friendly with children and is often posting materials on her Facebook page about her neighbor’s kids who frequently call her “Aunt Patty.”

Of the people I described above who is the person most likely to abduct your seven year old?

The answer … is you.

Amber Alert

The citizens of Massachusetts have had two Amber Alerts in two consecutive days regarding three children who were allegedly kidnapped.  However, these children were not taken by complete strangers; they were not snatched off the street by a criminal or by a neighbor who was a little “too friendly.” These children were taken by their own parents.  How is this possible?

Technically, the “Amber” alert stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response,” but it originated in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year old, was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas.   Amber’s killer was never found.  The media and various political interests focus on abductions (such as Amber’s) where the perpetrator is a nameless, faceless stranger, thus heightening feelings in every community that there are hoards of creepy men and women who want to take your child from you.  Added to this is that the most well-known child kidnappings in the last 40 years have been, most likely, kidnappings where the child was taken by a complete stranger, most notably the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart and the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh in Hollywood Florida in 1981.  Walsh’s kidnapping especially spawned a growth industry in the 1980s on dramas and sitcoms where at least one of the main characters was kidnapped, almost always by a total stranger (on the TV show, Diff’rent Strokes this happened twice).

However, this does not comport with reality.

The Myth of Stranger Danger

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 800,000 children are reported at least temporarily missing every year.  There are approximately 258,000 child abductions each year and of these, 200,000 are abducted by family members, typically in custody cases, and only 58,000 are abducted by non-family members.  However, of those 58,000, almost all are taken by somebody the child knows – a neighbor, a family friend, a coach, or even the parent of a friend of the child.

Only approximately 115 children are abducted by strangers every year.  That’s 4/100ths of ONE percent of total abductions, and 14/1000ths of ONE percent of total children reported missing.

This then begs the question, who is kidnapping these children?  The answer is, almost always, their parents.

While numbers can sometimes be easily confused and muddled the best statistics we have state that of all the children reported kidnapped in America, 78% were taken by the biological father (53%) or mother (25%).  Using the 200,000 number above, that would mean that 156,000 children every year are taken by mom or dad.


Divorce can be an emotional and oftentimes bitter experience.  Acrimony and nastiness can be perpetuated for years if the couple has children and the parents constantly fight over them.  Divorced parents will oftentimes only see each other when they are exchanging the children for parenting time, and this is often the only time they communicate.  That communication can be terse, angry, divisive and disrespectful.  Most disagreements between divorced parties are often centered on the children.  Child support can go unpaid; children will go to college and the parents disagree on a school; visitation will fluctuate or oftentimes end.  Sometimes, a custodial parent will legally endeavor to move with the child out-of-state and away from the other parent.

In a misguided (and oftentimes criminal) attempt to gain control, a parent may resort to taking the child away from the custodial parent (ie: the parent who the court has awarded “primary physical custody” of the children, even on a temporary basis).  Child custody kidnapping experts say that people kidnap their own children:

•             To force a reconciliation or continued interaction with the left-behind parent.

•             To spite or punish the other parent.

•             From fear of losing custody or visitation rights.

•             In rare cases, to protect the child from a parent who is perceived to molest, abuse, or neglect the child.

While child abduction, even by a parent, is rare, it is far more likely to occur than any other type of kidnapping. Here are some common warning signs that may help alert you if your spouse or ex-spouse is contemplating kidnapping your children.  If the other parent:

•             Has threatened abduction or has actually abducted the child in the past.

•             Is suspected of abuse, and these suspicions are supported by family and friends.

•             Is paranoid delusional or severely sociopathic.

•             Is a citizen of another country and is ending a mixed-culture marriage.

•             Feels alienated from the legal system, and has family/social support in another community.

•             Has no strong ties to the child’s home state.

•             Has no job, is able to work anywhere, and is not financially tied to the area.

•             Is planning to quit a job, sell a home, closing bank accounts, applying for passports, obtaining school or medical records.

Parents in a divorce can mitigate miscommunication and bad feelings by fostering certain attitudes that can defuse potentially disastrous situations.  Further, if a spouse or ex-spouse cannot be mollified by good communication there are further preventative steps that can be taken.  These are important steps you can take to clearly establish your legal custody of your children, and help prevent a kidnapping.

•             Respect the other parent’s custody and parenting-time rights. Anger, frustration and desperation are leading causes of family abduction.

•             Attempt to maintain a friendly relationship with your ex-spouse and his/her family. If a kidnapping does occur, you will need the support of the kidnapper’s family to bring your child home safely.  This cannot be overstated; even a desperate and angry parent who does not listen to their ex-spouse may very well listen to their own parent or a sibling.  Whenever possible, keep as good of a relationship as you are able with your ex-spouse’s family.

•             Begin the custody process immediately. You cannot prove your custody rights without a custody order.

•             Include abduction prevention measures in the custody order if the situation merits it.

•             Keep a certified copy of the custody order with you at home.

•             Record and document abduction threats. Report them immediately to family court, a Family Services case worker, your lawyer or the police.

•             Ask the police to intervene and warn the non-custodial parent of criminal consequences—family abduction is often a felony.

•             Notify schools, healthcare providers, day care and baby sitters of custody orders. Certified copies of custody orders should be on file at the school office etc.  Encourage the providers to call you in case there is any doubt as to who should be taking the child from these locations.

•             Keep lists of identifying information about the non-custodial parent, including social security numbers, current photos, license plate numbers and bank and credit card accounts.

•             File a certified copy of the custody order in the non-custodial parent’s state, so that state’s courts know about the order.

•             Obtain a passport for your child, and notify the passport office that your child is not to leave the country without your written permission.

Communication with Your Child

There is then the uncomfortable reality of what to tell your child, first about “strangers” in general and second about potential issues with your spouse.  First, there are a few things you should not tell your child.  Believe it or not, the blanket statement “never talk to strangers” is not a good idea.  In fact teaching children to “never talk to strangers” is a wildly ineffective method of assisting children should they become separated from their parent.   When lost or in trouble, children should be encouraged to approach certain “strangers”, like police officers, firefighters, mail carriers, store owners, utility workers, etc., most notably because these people are in a position of knowledge to assist the child in reconnecting with a parent.  Next, do not put your child in the middle of any disagreement you and your spouse/ex-spouse are having regarding parenting time, child support or any other source of friction.   There is no reason to include a child in an adult disagreement.

Teach your children their full name, your full name, address and phone numbers.  Regarding phone numbers, teach them for to use cell, home, and pay phones to call for help and, as uncomfortable as this may be, help them practice making emergency phone calls.  Next, keep completed child ID documents for each child, including current photo that you should update every few months.

Finally, reassure your children if they have questions about danger, crime, and/or issues they see in the news.  Let them know that you will do whatever you can to keep them safe.  Let them know that you will always love them.  If your child asks what will happen if they are taken from you, tell them that you will always look for them if they don’t come home.

Each and every year, May 25 is National Missing Children’s Day, a day set aside by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to encourage families to discuss child safety.  It is important to know that while parents are seen as the great protectors of their children, they are, unfortunately, the most likely person to kidnap that child and carry him or her away from the custodial parent.  It is critically important that you understand the warning signs for this phenomenon, especially if you are either going through a divorce now or have been experiencing acrimonious post-divorce strife with your ex-spouse.   While child abduction is very rare, parents need to be vigilant and receptive in case the unthinkable does happen.


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