Family Child Abductions Essay

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Family abduction is defined as the taking or keeping of a child by a family member in violation of a custody order, a decree, or other legitimate custodial rights, where the taking or keeping involves some element of concealment, flight, or intent to deprive a lawful custodian indefinitely of custodial privileges.

Family abducted children are both a subcategory of missing children and part of a larger type of crime and child welfare problem. Since it is possible for a child to be unlawfully removed from custody by a family member, with the child’s whereabouts known, not all family abducted children are missing. For example, a child may be abducted by a noncustodial father, taken to the father’s home in a different country, and kept at an address well known to the custodial mother. Even though the father refuses to return the child, the abducted child is not missing because the custodial mother knows where the child is. The most recent national incidence estimates available are 1999 estimates, according to which 203,900 children were victims of a family abduction, and 57% of these children qualified as missing.

Overall, family abducted children accounted for 9% of all missing children, and 7% of those reported to authorities as missing. Although the police were contacted regarding 60% of all family abducted children, not all of these contacts were for the purpose of locating the child. Fifty percent of the contacts were to recover the child from a known location, 42% (56,500 children) were to locate the child, 6% were for another reason, and no information was available for the remaining 2%.

The data show that family abduction is one of the few victimization perils that younger children experience to a greater extent than older children, with 44% of family abducted children under age 6, compared to 35% ages 6 to 11, and 21% ages 12 and older. Most children abducted by a family member were abducted by their father (53%), with their abductor in lawful circumstances immediately prior to the abduction (63%), and gone less than 1 month (70%). Of these, 46% were returned in less than 1 week. Only 6% of children abducted by a family member had not yet been returned at the time of data collection; however, all of these children had been located.

In addition to locating and returning family abducted children, agencies seeking to help these children must address the conflicts that produce and prolong the abduction of children by family members. The fact that the data show that fully 40% of family abductions were not reported to the police underscores the importance of agencies that can provide a response to threatened and actual family abductions over and above the important location and recovery function performed by law enforcement. Prevention efforts should focus on younger children, especially those who do not live with both biological parents. Programs that specifically promote child well-being and those that address child safety issues generally may be appropriate forums in which to raise awareness about family abduction.


  1. Hammer, H., Finkelhor, D., & Sedlak, A. J. (2002). Family abducted children: National estimates and characteristics. Office of Juvenile Justice and
  2. Delinquency Prevention Bulletin Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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