Ask parents who abduct their children why they do it, and answers center around two motives: love and safety.
But ask leaders of missing-children's groups about parents' motives, and the response is different. "Rarely is it an act of love," says Donna Linder, executive director of Child Find of America in New Paltz, N.Y. "It's an act of vengeance."
Ernie Allen, president of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., cites University of Maryland research showing that 80 percent of cases are motivated by anger or revenge at the other parent. "In the preponderance of cases, the child is used as a pawn."
Even so, Ms. Linder says she can understand some parents' concerns. "They're afraid the child might be neglected or abused by Mom's new boyfriend or Dad's new girlfriend, or convinced not to love Mom or Dad anymore. That still doesn't make it right to do it."
Her group tries to show parents the nature of their fears and get them to communicate. "We help parents hammer out coparenting agreements they can live with," she says.
Courts are awarding fathers custody more often than in the past, says Jeffrey Woptert, a parental-abduction investigator with Child Quest International in San Jose, Calif. "If the mother feels the child is going to be awarded to the father, she may make contact with underground organizations." These groups hide families and make finding children difficult.
Yet Faye Yager of Atlanta, who operates Children of the Underground, a 10-year-old network of safe houses, defends the practice.
Seventy percent of parents she helps are mothers and 30 percent are fathers. The majority of her cases, she says, involve alleged child sexual abuse, as well as physical abuse and neglect.
"Parents try to get protective orders for their children in cases of abuse or neglect. They spend thousands of dollars on legal fees, and you have judges who just don't listen. In other cases, judges tell parents they cannot leave the state. It forces the parent into this dilemma."
But child advocates insist that abduction is not the answer. "There's absolutely no excuse for it," says Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law in Washington. "Parents who take the law in their own hands are not only giving up on the justice system and trying to evade it, but they're harming their children."