A child is missing Why parents abduct their own kids


When Bob Shuman was 4 years old, his father picked him up from his mother's house in Pennsylvania for a weekend visit and drove straight to Los Angeles. For the next 20 years, Mr. Shuman had virtually no contact with his mother.

He spent his childhood in California with his father and a stepmother pained and confused about a mother he was not permitted to mention.

And he was never allowed to express anger about being abducted.

"It was portrayed to me that my real mother was not a nice person, that my father saved me from that environment and that I was a lucky person," says Mr. Shuman, now a counselor in the Employee Assistance Program for Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "In those days, the idea was to keep your mouth shut and go on. It was a family secret, one of those things that you don't talk about.

"My stepmother was threatened by it, she wanted me to see her

as my real mother. So the family system was 'I needed to protect her feelings.' . . . It was not until I was an adult that I could begin to deal with this."

It has proved difficult for the 39-year-old counselor to understand his parents: A mother who gave birth to him when she was 15 and later struggled with drug and alcohol abuse; a father who had initially hoped his wife would follow him to the West Coast if he used his son as bait.

Parental abduction can be not only traumatic but also terribly complex, say Geoffrey Greif and Rebecca Hegar, associate professors at the University of Maryland School of Social Work at Baltimore, in their new book, "When Parents Kidnap: The Families Behind the Headlines" ($22.95, The Free Press).

The book marks the first attempt to document parental kidnapping from the point of view of social science rather than criminal justice. It considers the situations of the children, the searching parents and the abductors.

The authors believe civil and criminal definitions of parental abduction should become more uniform. They point out that in Texas interference with child custody is a third-degree felony that applies to a parent who takes, retains or entices a child younger than 18 away from a custodial parent in violation of a court order.

In Maryland, however, it is only a misdemeanor to abduct a child under the age of 12 from a custodial parent -- unless the child is taken out of state.

"If you're a police officer and you've got a Dontay Carter on the loose vs. some mother who has run away with the kids, you put the mother on the bottom of the pile," says Dr. Greif. "It's hard to convince people that with these situations, you have a series of potential traumas that can affect society for a number of years."

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that parental abductions run as high as 350,000 a year in the United States and that most occur after school holidays in the summer months and after Christmas. Although most of the children are returned to their homes within a week or so, according to Dr. Greif, as many as 160,000 children remain missing, and at risk, for longer periods of time. The longer a child is missing, the less likely it is that a child will be returned to the searching parent.

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, praises the book by Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar and points to the Census Bureau's projected divorce rates -- about half of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce -- as proof that the problem of abductions may increase.

"There are still all of these underlying assumptions that parental abduction is a civil problem: a problem of domestic relations, something the lawyers should work out," he says. "People still think if the kidnapped child is with a parent, that's not someone who is going to hurt them.

"The single most powerful bit of data for us [in Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar's book] addresses parents' motive for kidnapping: It turns out that 80 percent of the parents take a child from anger or to get revenge, and not as an act of love [according to the parents left behind]. And when a child is taken out of those circumstances, it's clear he or she is going to be used as a pawn. And that the child is a victim."

The authors evaluated detailed questionnaires from 371 parents left behind in abductions as well as talking to abducted children and their abductors. They found more than half the abductors were reported violent and a third of those parents left behind said they had also been accused of being violent or had engaged in acts of family violence. In many situations, both parents posed a threat to their children.

However, Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar discovered a variety of circumstances leading to kidnapping:

* Noncustodial parents felt acutely isolated from their children.

* The parents felt the children were being turned against them.

* The parents resented the sense of being replaced by stepparents.

* Others fled with their children from households in which they were physically abused.

"There aren't always good guys and bad guys or good gals and bad gals," Dr. Greif says. "It's a very complex issue, obviously, and everyone has their own take on it. It's hard to figure out what has gone on in these relationships to get to the point where somebody feels they have to kidnap their child, throw off their old life and assume a new identity in a new city, state, or even country."

Much of the prior research, written from the viewpoint of the legal system, sees abducted children and their searching parents merely as victims of crime.

"Some people think all parental abductions are abuse," says Dr. Hegar. "We have tried to look at the different underlying patterns."

The authors believe the legal system should consider various circumstances surrounding an abduction. Before assessing a penalty, criminal codes should look at motivation, harm and extenuating circumstances -- just as they do for the act of killing.

"What do you do with a child that has been with an abductor for a year or more?" says Dr. Greif. "Is it OK to send the child back to the searching parent? What if the abductor is the parent who initially had the better bond with the child? What about the searching parent's rights? What about visitation from the abductor? Is it OK for that person to have contact with the child?"

The act of abducting children often reflects the failures of the child custody process, Mr. Allen says.

"It's not to excuse it, but there are parents who do this out of desperation. Because the custody process is so adversarial, it almost invites parents to create allegations against the other spouse," he says. "We would like to see the process of child custody focus more on the welfare of the child."

The authors recommend that a court reconsider pre-existing custody arrangements after a child has lived with an abductor for a long period of time. It might not be appropriate, they argue, to send a child like Mr. Shuman, who lived with one parent for many years, back to another parent with whom he has had no contact.

"A lot of attention [in these cases] has been on which parent has the superior right to the child than on 'Where is the child better off?' " says Dr. Hegar. "We recommend that the basis for the custody of the child be the least detrimental alternative for the child."

It has taken many years for Mr. Shuman to understand his abduction.

He says he was besieged with emotional troubles in his 20s,

including great anger at his father. After a brief marriage himself -- he has a 12-year-old daughter -- he went to work at piecing together his past.

"I didn't go off the deep end, but it has cost me a lot, literally, in therapy, and in the fact I haven't been able to sustain a long-term committed relationship," he says.

"The reality is that my mother was not that great of a mother. But is it better to have a mother that's flawed or to have no mother? In hindsight, it's better to have had a mother."

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