What to do about parents who steal their own children

MORE than 100,000 children are kidnapped each year in the United States by those who supposedly love them -- their parents. This aspect of child-snatching is less publicized than situations where strangers abscond with children for ransom, molestation, or other forms of exploitation. And when a parent is the abductor, perhaps the imminent physical dangers to the child are less.

But there is harm -- harm when a youngster is surreptitiously uprooted from the home of a custodial parent, lied to or misled, illegally taken across state lines, and forced into a life of running from the law. And all this in the name of love for the child.

Parents who snatch their own children out of their legal homes often insist that unfair laws and harsh court orders have sharply curtailed their visitation rights or deprived them of access to their own flesh and blood. Some insist they can provide a better environment and upbringing than the parent who has custody.

Specialists in domestic relations, however, say other reasons tend to motivate a parental child-snatcher.

``They're mad,'' insists Angela Kincaid of Oklahoma Parents Against Child-Stealing. ``They're afraid they won't see the kids again. And they want to get back at their [former or estranged] spouses.'' Mrs. Kincaid and her husband run one of a handful of private agencies that have sprung up across the US in recent years to combat the growing practice of noncustodial parents absconding with their children.

Most of these groups are nonprofit -- operating out of kitchens and family rooms and surviving on private donations. Some have been started by those who, like Mrs. Kincaid, have experienced the trauma of having children illegally taken by a former spouse. Some of the larger agencies, like Child Find of New York, also deal with the broader problem of missing or kidnapped children. But several groups are now focusing exclusively on parental abductions.

Those whose children have been snatched by an estranged or ex-husband or ex-wife have formidable hurdles in getting them back. Among them:

1. Divergent local practices and lack of uniform state laws. In some places, the taking of a child by a noncustodial parent is a misdemeanor. It usually becomes a felony only when the youngster is transported over state lines. Police are often slow to respond to a complaint -- viewing the situation as a domestic squabble which may more properly be resolved within the family.

2. Relatively light punishment for a spouse who is caught by authorities after absconding with his or her child. Some states, including New York, refuse to classify it a crime if a child is taken in connection with a court-allowed visitation.

3. Difficulties of legally preventing this type of abduction. For instance, school authorities are sometimes reluctant to stop any parent from taking a youngster from the classroom unless they have in hand a court order instructing them to refuse to release the child. Also, police say they cannot act on a suspected child-snatching -- unless there is a specific warrant out for the potential adult offender.

4. Inadequate apparatus for parents to find stolen children. The Dayton, Ohio-based Missing Children's Network -- which arranges for photos of youngsters to appear on local television across the country -- has of late helped locate many boys and girls abducted by parents.

But the newly formed, federally sponsored National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is principally concerned with those molested, abused, kidnapped, or exploited by people outside the family.

Obviously, a parent's best preventive for child-snatching by a former spouse would be to alter those circumstances that foster it.

Some specialists advocate a reexamination of divorce and custody agreements with an eye to more decrees of joint custody. June Valsaty of the Rhode Island-based Society for Young Victims stresses that a ``child is the product of both parents. The best thing is to be with both parents.''

But Cleveland lawyer Marian C. Abram points out there are two sides to the joint-custody argument. ``Proponents argue that joint custody reduces the frustration and anger that lead a parent, whose rights have been ignored by the court, to seek revenge through child abduction,'' Ms. Abram writes in an American Bar Association Journal article.

But she also points out the position of opponents who contend that joint custody is a ``legal cop-out . . . [that] often covers up and prevents the parents from addressing important issues concerning the child's welfare.''

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to be overcome is selfishness and self-centeredness. Parents who truly love their children and care deeply about their welfare will seek ways to avoid a legal and emotional custody tug of war in which the child is caught in the middle. Unfortunately, a court can't decree that anger, resentment, and vindictiveness must give way to parental selflessness. But individuals can. A Thursday column

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