BOSTON — It's a story with all the melodrama and suspense of a soap opera: An estranged husband abducts his two little daughters from their New England home, whisks them away to Florida, and reinvents his life as a socialite widower, raising the girls among millionaires. He tells the sisters their mother is dead.
But the high-profile story of Stephen Fagan - who 19 years later faces kidnapping charges in a Massachusetts court - is no movie fantasy for America's child-protection experts. Each year, about 800,000 children go missing in the US, and almost half of these youngsters are abducted by a family member, usually a parent.
Statistics are sketchy, but experts believe family abductions have been on the rise since Mr. Fagan allegedly fled in 1979 with Rachael and Lisa to protect the girls, he insists, from an unfit mother.
"Parental abductions seem to be constantly on the increase," says Frank Bernhardt of Children's Rights of America in Atlanta. "Every day, we hear of another...."
Reasons for the trend are complex, but are rooted largely in the high number of divorces and acrimonious custody battles during the past two decades, experts say. Some say family courts are unfair to wives in divorce settlements and to fathers in custody disputes, and are ill-equipped to factor in the complexities of modern-day life. Others see a growing selfishness in American society, with more parents placing revenge against an estranged spouse above their children's welfare.
The Fagan case, which resumes Thursday in a courtroom in Framingham, Mass., has shined a faint light into a previously taboo corner of American society. Fagan, who has pleaded not guilty to state kidnapping charges, will appear before the court for arraignment. If convicted, he faces a maximum 20 years in prison.
Family kidnapping was not treated as a serious crime until the 1980s, making the extent of the problem hard to measure. Police viewed it as purely a family matter, says Karen Strickland, executive director of Find the Children in Los Angeles. "This is a very under-reported issue," she adds.
In 1980, a federal law came into effect prohibiting parents from abducting their children. Ten years later, Congress passed a law requiring that every report of a missing child must be entered with the National Crime Information Center. As a result, the number of missing children increased by 43.9 percent between 1990 and 1996. A majority are runaways, but family abductions are a close second.
"It's hard to know just how much of it [the increase] is because of improved reporting," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va. "Our guess is that parental abductions are significantly higher than in the early to mid '80s."
A 1990 report by the US Justice Department found that 354,100 children are abducted by a family member each year. A second Justice report on missing children is under way, and the result is expected to be finished next year.
While some parents take their children to protect them from abuse by the other spouse, experts believe the main motive is revenge. Mr. Bernhardt says a selfish trend of "as long as it feels good to you, do it" means more parents are taking the law into their own hands if they're unhappy with a custody settlement.
"Twenty years ago, people felt that if they were in a bad situation, they were going to stay in it anyway for the child's sake," he says. "But now, everything is me, me, me."
Moreover, the women's rights movement has had an impact, as newly empowered women have elected to leave bad marriages rather than stick them out, says Bernhardt. His group and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have found the majority of abducting parents are mothers. But other studies show 55 percent of abducting parents are men.
"The reason there's a high number of parental abductions is because there is a higher number of parental divorces," says Mr. Allen. Divorced people made up 39 percent of America's adult population in 1996, compared with 28 percent in 1970. He cites no-fault divorce laws, which have made it easier to end a marriage.
CHILD-PROTECTION agencies hope the number of family kidnappings will start to fall because of measures introduced this decade. These include joint custody, or custody sharing, of a child, and the appointment of an independent court mediator to try to resolve conflicts.
"The problem is now viewed in a much more serious way by courts and law enforcers," says Allen. But there's still a long way to go, he adds, because too often in custody cases, "there is an inducement or incentive for one parent to tear down the other."
About 90 percent of family abductions end with the child being returned to the custodial parent, says Bernhardt. In nearly half of the cases, the child is missing for only two to seven days.
But sometimes, abducting parents will alter their children's appearance, school them at home, and go to great lengths to hide them from the public, says Bernhardt. In the Fagan case, for example, the father is accused of inventing a new past for his daughters and changing their last name to Martin. When the children are missing for years, a happy reconciliation with the other parent can be more elusive, Bernhardt says. So far, Fagan's daughters have not contacted their mother.