The Department of Justice’s second National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children in America (NISMART II) concludes that there were 203,900 cases of family abduction in the year studied, and I have a problem with that.
My problem is that in many of those cases, there was no missing child.
This is a problem that extends far beyond NISMART: the definitions of “family abduction” and “custodial interference” are synonymous, and they shouldn’t be. While every case of family abduction is a case of custodial interference, not every case of custodial interference should be viewed as an act of child abduction.
The NISMART definition of family abduction is:
“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 involved some element of concealment, flight, or intent to deprive a lawful custodian indefinitely of custodial privileges.”
The emphasis above is mine, because it is my opinion that the culprit word is the “or.” Concealment of the child is not required for a case to be counted as an abduction.
Consider this scenario: Mom and dad and their two kids move from Florida to Vermont for dad’s work. Everyone is miserable in Vermont. They miss Florida. Their family is in Florida, their friends are in Florida, they keep their beautiful home on the beach in Florida and happily escape there every chance they get. When mom and dad divorce, mom takes the kids back to the house that everyone thinks of as “home”…despite a custody order stating that dad gets to see the kids for dinner twice a week and overnights every second weekend. According to the NISMART definition, mom just engaged in an act of child abduction.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it’s not terrible that mom cut off dad’s weekly visitation. What I am saying is that those children are not at risk for the profound physical and psychological jeopardy that accompanies missing child cases of family abduction; cases in which a child is concealed and subjected to the identity rupture and other dangers of being in isolation with a distressed care-giver.
I propose that cases of family abduction in which the child is at grave risk often wind up dismissed as custody battles because most of the cases classified as “family abduction” by NISMART ARE custody battles. They are cases best resolved by family court and do not require missing child response services.
As Take Root’s Clinical Director, Dr. Neil Kirkpatrick, concludes:
“Categorizing familial abduction cases, custodial interference cases, and contentious custody battle cases together in one lump based on overbroad criteria dilutes efforts at research and advocacy. There is simply too little in common between a child abducted and concealed from family members and a child whose parent keeps them extra days in violation of a custody agreement, to meaningfully place them in the same category. Additionally, the practice obscures other markers of risk and harm, thereby doing a disservice to meaningful intervention and legislation. There are numerous meaningful variables from which a precise, accurate and nuanced categorization system of child abduction can and should be developed.”
We must distinguish missing child cases of family abduction from other forms of custodial interference if we are to develop an adequate array of response, advocacy, and intervention services.
Melissa “Liss” Haviv is a Fulbright Scholar and the Executive Director of Take Root.