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Parental Abduction: Just Anxiety or a Reason to Fear?

Understand the warning signs, risks, and impact of this troubling phenomenon.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

It seems like in the very recent past, we have received countless amber alerts about children being abducted by a parent. In the world of separation and divorce, individuals are quick to assume that abductions are a result of this conflict and that it must have been the non-resident parent who was responsible for this.

In fact, each time this occurs, and Toronto is woken up by the blaring of an amber alert emitting from phones, radios, and televisions across the city, my clients have shared that they panic. They reported that even if rationally they know their child is asleep safe and sound next door, they immediately worry it must have to do with them.

Is this just our innate narcissism, or do separating parents have reason to be concerned? Abduction by a parent seems to receive a lot of media attention and speculation, but how common is it really?

In Canada, a country of approximately 37 million people, a few hundred children get abducted by a parent every year. Statistically, this may not seem huge, but if we consider the implications of these numbers, they are still quite significant. Add to this that when children are removed from Federal jurisdiction (i.e., Canada), less than 10 percent of them return to their countries of origin.

What a terrifying thought for parents; from a therapeutic perspective, it is understandable that there is quite a bit of fear and anxiety about this as parents tend to prime themselves for the worst-case scenario. But how fearful do you really need to be? And what are the warning signs you should look out for?

The research tells us that parental abduction has a lot of warning signs. Making this even more challenging is that a lot of these warning signs are typical for many high-conflict families who may not be at higher risk for parental abduction. A couple of examples of these are: making threats about removing the child, making threats to harm the other parent/themselves/the child, displaying stalking or harassing behavior, showing high levels of anger or hostility towards a parent, and the fact that there is often fighting between the parents about custody/access.

You may be seeing yourself in some of these risk factors if you are going through a high-conflict separation: These in and of themselves are not necessarily reason to panic.

More specifically with respect to parental abduction, the research points to signs such as a recent family court decision that one parent may be angry about, the child has made comments such as “Mom/Dad said we're going to live somewhere warm/cold/far/etc.," the other parent has made many significant life changes in a short period of time (selling home, quitting job, emptying accounts), the other parent changes their appearance drastically, the other parent attempts to hide or destroy documents, and/or the other parent has an interest in returning to another country or province where they may have connections.

Again, the presence of one or many of these risk factors does not point specifically to potential parental abduction; however, it is important to be aware of the signs and ensure parents are well equipped to deal with these as they arise. There is no magic crystal ball to know whether or not parental abduction will or won’t happen; however, we can make educated hypotheses about assessing risk and protecting ourselves and our children.

It may prove to be a correct assumption that child abduction appears to be more common during custody or access proceedings. This may be due to escalating tensions between parents, the adversarial nature of court proceedings, and extreme feelings of powerlessness. Nonetheless, there is never any legal justification for a parent to make the unilateral decision to cut off contact for a child with the other parent, and regardless of the rationale, child abduction is seen as a criminal offense.

The legal definition of parental abduction relates to the removal or detainment of a child contrary to an access or custody provision in a court order or agreement (hence the ties to divorce and separation. Both at the federal and provincial levels, the Divorce Act upholds the validity of any court order or judgments with respect to parental rights. These orders pertaining to separation, parenting time, and/or decision making then become enforceable under the same Act (Sec.20).

Parents who do not have any formal agreements with respect to parenting, but have sincere concerns that their child has been abducted, or is at risk of being abducted, may find benefit in consulting with a family law lawyer. For these types of concerns, a lawyer may recommend filing an ex-parte order that provides a stipulation that the child cannot be removed from the jurisdiction without consent by the other parent. This simply means that this type of order can be filed at the court without providing notice to the other party.

There is a clear impact on both parents of abducted children, and the abducted child themselves. Although not much research has been conducted in this area, we do have some idea about the unfortunate nature of an abducted child’s experience. Children who have been abducted are more likely to experience trauma as a result of their experience (physical, sexual, emotional abuse, neglect).

In addition, they are more likely to have received negative messages about their other parent and are experiencing the impact of being denied contact with friends, relatives, extended family, and professional supports. In addition, the child has more than likely received inappropriate messages about trust, authority, family relationships, boundaries, and safety, which may result in a compromised sense of self and extreme confusion.

When children do return to their country/family of origin, we also know that the transition can be far from smooth as a result of their experience. It has been identified that upon return, children may experience the following: anxiety and fear about safety and re-abduction, trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, loyalty conflicts between parents, psychological regression, trouble with memory, dissociation, and inability to make and keep social connections.

So what should a parent do if they find themselves in this situation? The Canadian government created a guidebook called “International Child Abduction: A Guidebook for Left-Behind Parents.” This guidebook highlights the first steps, such as: calling the local police, hiring a lawyer, and informing family, friends, and key professionals involved in the child’s life.

Parents are also recommended to contact governmental passport offices, and global affairs department to be on the lookout, potentially invalidate travel documents, and contact other countries' foreign officials for support abroad. In terms of emotional support, parents are recommended to contact professionals well-versed in parental abduction to receive emotional support throughout the process and to prepare logistically and emotionally in the event of reunion. Lastly, it is also recommended that parents document all of their search efforts and steps taken, should this documentation need to be used in court, or to ultimately show the child once they return.

So what can be done to hopefully minimize and prevent the highly stressful and traumatic experience of parental abduction? Well, from a Canadian context, there are certain provisions in place to protect families. One such provision is the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention [on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction] is an agreement between 89 countries who state they are legally committed to returning any/all wrongfully removed children to their habitual residence.

Luckily, Canada is a signatory to the Hague convention. Under this convention, parents are entitled to file for one year of the date of abduction to have the return mechanism applied. A parent is still entitled to the right to file over one year from the date of abduction; however, this lapse of a year entitles the abducting parent to have the opportunity to provide evidence as to whether or not the child has settled into the new environment.

In the case of a child being abducted to a non-signatory jurisdiction, the convention does not allow for the return mechanism to be exercised. Parents are then forced to work instead with federal police and consular services, who will then work with international/foreign authorities to locate abducted children. In addition, many non-governmental organizations also work with parents to locate abducted children and coordinate recovery services.


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