Though I could count the instances on one hand, I have had a few cases in my career where a client had a legitimate concern about their former spouse or their child’s parent attempting to abduct the child. Usually this fear stems from long-standing threats designed to leverage access to the child against some financial demand. In those instances, the demand related to issues surrounding child support: either the filing for it or expenses related to the child. Fortunately, nothing ever happened and the fear subsided.
Based on data from the FBI, 76% of kidnappings are perpetrated by a family member or acquaintance. When you consider that the majority of kidnappings are by someone known to the child, however, it is not an unreasonable fear and one justifiably addressed by the state through specific laws to deal with the person the child knows best: their parent.
In 2010 (and updated and expanded in 2014), Pennsylvania enacted the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act to codify measures to identify and address parent abductions. This act is found within larger Domestic Relations Code and is part of the custody statutes (23 Pa.C.S.A. 5201 et al.). The act provides emergency, ex parte relief to a party whose child has been abducted and helps identify at risk cases.
It also offers specific factors which support the risk of abduction. Previous attempts are obviously a good indicator of the likelihood of a future attempt, but the statute also identifies behavior such as abandoning employment, selling a residence or terminating a lease, closing bank accounts or otherwise behaving like someone about to leave the area. It also cites the risk posed by a parent who has few ties to Pennsylvania or the United States. The latter being particularly important because a citizen of a country which is not a signatory state to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction or the other Hague Conventions addressing international child custody can be shielded from U.S. court orders or attempts to seek recognition of the U.S. custody order in that country. Consequently, the local judiciary, laws, and customs can make retrieving a child extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible.
Utilizing this statute will allow a party to obtain very specific abduction prevention conditions, restrictions on the other party, and limitations on custody and visitation. It is a powerful piece of legislation, and one not lightly entered into. In short, a parent has a tough burden to have this statute applied to their case, but if the facts justify it, they will have strong safeguards against abduction.
There are some other, non-Act measures that parents can use to limit the risk of parental abduction, particularly where the other parent is a citizen of another country or holds a foreign passport:
1. The State Department’s Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program. If a parent tries to obtain a passport for their child, the program will notify the other parent and they have the opportunity of preventing the international travel.
2. Bonds. Requiring that the other parent post a bond prior to their custodial time with the children will serve as a preventative measure, financial leverage against withholding the child, and, if the parent does not return the child, financial resources to pursue litigation in the foreign country. Again, this measure contemplates international travel, but it could be applied for domestic travel, too, if the geographic difference is great enough or the facts justify it. I have had it successfully applied to international cases, particularly a case involving a Russian national. Russia was not a signatory to the child custody Hague Conventions for a long time, thus making a bond a valuable deterrent and possible source of funds for my client if the children’s father did not return the children after his custodial time in Russia. Considering the international state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia, Russia’s subsequent adoption of the Hague Conventions does not alleviate the need for this bond for the foreseeable future. The source of the bond needs to be readily accessible and releasable to the parent.
3. Local Police Department. Custody orders are Court Orders, but do not expect a local police force to enforce your custody schedule. There is a huge difference between contempt of a Custody Order and parent abduction and the police will expect you to use the judicial system to deal with contempt. That said, IF there is a legitimate concern about the health and well-being of the child or the location of the child, the local police can be a resource to do a spot check to ensure the other parent is residing where she claims to reside and the child with is with her. I cannot stress enough how the police should be judiciously and cautiously used; if you are ready to use the police, you should have already talked to an attorney and in the process of pursuing a court action based on the facts of situation.
Parent abductions are a scary thought, but despite how remote they may seem, a reality. The Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act provides the mechanism for minimizing that risk for those most extreme of cases.
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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.