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A Case Shows Shift in Kidnap Laws

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1998


What a difference two decades make.

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In 1979, when Stephen Fagan abducted his two young daughters and fled from Massachusetts to Florida, his former wife, Barbara Kurth, had few places to turn. Parental kidnapping was often regarded by law-enforcement officials as a family matter. Ms. Kurth has stated publicly that police and the FBI refused to get involved, citing a lack of laws.

Today, in the wake of Mr. Fagan's highly publicized arrest in Palm Beach last month on kidnapping charges, advocates for missing children are using his case as a measure of how attitudes, resources, and laws have changed.

"We have come light years in these cases," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. "In 1979, it wasn't even a crime in every state. There was a pervasive attitude that we still battle to some extent today: 'The kid's with the parent, how bad can it be?' You couldn't even enter missing-child information in the National Crime Information Center, a national data base for 17,000 police departments."

Now, Mr. Allen says, more training exists for police. More judges are taking cases seriously, and penalties are improving.

So are recovery rates. Since 1990, the center has located more than 80 percent of the children it seeks. "Most kids are recovered, most abductors are identified, and most kids are returned to their lawful parent," Allen says. "But it's a continuing battle."

As the Fagan case illustrates, that battle can continue even after children are found. (Police discovered Fagan living under the name William Martin.) Ms. Kurth, a research scientist in Charlottesville, Va., has denied Fagan's claims that she was an alcoholic and a neglectful mother. But their daughters, Rachael and Lisa Martin, refuse to see her.

Every year, as many as 350,000 children are involved in family abductions, according to the US Department of Justice. A family member either takes a child in violation of a custody decree or fails to return a child at the end of a legal or agreed-upon visit. Children typically range from 2 to 11 years old. In nearly half of cases, the child is missing from two to seven days.

Progress in dealing with these cases began in 1980, when a federal law prohibiting parents from abducting their children took effect. Its purpose is to ensure that state child-custody determinations will be honored by courts of other states.

"If you have a custody order in Georgia and the other parent takes the child to California, California should honor these papers," says Frank Bernhardt, director of community outreach for Children's Rights of America in Atlanta. "But in some cases that is still a problem."

In 1982, Congress passed the Missing Children Act, a law that provides for missing children to be entered into the FBI computer. By the early 1980s, all 50 states had enacted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act, a uniform state law designed to promote interstate cooperation in enforcing custody orders. And if a parent takes a child out of state or out of the country in defiance of a court order, law-enforcement officials can obtain a warrant for the abducting parent's arrest.