Academic journal article Family Relations

Parents Who Abduct: A Qualitative Study with Implications for Practice

Academic journal article Family Relations

Parents Who Abduct: A Qualitative Study with Implications for Practice

Article excerpt

If we conceptualize custody decisions between divorcing parents on a continuum from the harmonious to the acrimonious, at the latter extreme would be those that result in parental abduction. Parental abduction has been defined as "the taking, retention, or concealment of a child or children by a parent, other family member, or their agent, in derogation of the custody rights...of another parent or family member" (Girdner & Hoff, 1992, p. 1). When a parent snatches his or her child with the intent of going into hiding, the parent is depriving the child not only of contact with the other parent but with the child's accustomed surroundings (home, toys, school, neighborhood), as well as friends and family members. Because these children are typically young, with almost 40 being five or younger (Finkelhor, Hotaling, & Sedlak, 1991), such disjunctures, even for a relatively short period of time, can be harmful to the child's emotional development (Greif & Hegar, 1992). As abductions often occur at a time of high family conflict, that is, during a custody battle or as a marriage is breaking up, they can have an additive effect on the level of stress for all family members. Particularly with an abduction of significant duration, the suffering on the part of the adults and the child involved can be enormous.

Abductions have become recognized as a significant social problem. The United States Justice Department has allocated millions of dollars since the late 1980s to study and develop programs to cope with them (see, for example, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1993). Estimates of family-related abductions have ranged as high as 350,000 annually (Finkelhor et al., 1991). Given that such an event affects three people at a minimum (two parents and a child) and potentially many more (other family members, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], court-related resources, and international governments), abductions merit extensive research. Despite the emotional, financial, and intellectual resources that have been expended on this issue, little is known about the abducting parent's perspective on the circumstances leading up to and stemming from such actions.

The dialogue about parental abduction has been dominated by the so-called "searching," or left-behind parent. It is he or she who contacts the police, the FBI, private investigators, lawyers, and missing children's organizations in attempts to locate the missing child. Searching parents are also willing to participate in studies. Many believe, whether they have recovered their children or not, that their participation in studies geared toward understanding the phenomenon of parental abduction will help themselves as well as others (Greif & Hegar, 1993). By contrast, abductors, after the location and return of the children, have been difficult to find and often refuse requests to be interviewed. They are difficult to locate because the searching parent, who is usually the contact person, must first agree to give researchers the name of the abductor. Searching parents are often loathe to do this, as it may inflame an already tenuous relationship. Abductors, if they are found, are reluctant to participate when contacted because they are often distrustful of someone contacting them through the searching parent and are suspicious of government-funded research. Although the total number of abductions is substantial, few court. jurisdictions handle enough cases to make court-based research fruitful, and such local data have other inherent biases, such as the manner in which abductions are reported and the idiosyncrasies of the bench in that jurisdiction or of the laws of the state.

The purpose of this article is to present the findings from qualitative interviews with 17 parents who abducted their children. The reasons abductors gave for their actions are highlighted. This study begins to fill a void in our understanding of what can be a life-changing and, occasionally, life-threatening event. …

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