International parental kidnapping is a serious federal crime that can result in years of incarceration. Since the Hague Conference on Private International Law adopted the Hague Abduction Convention in 1983, 101 countries recognize international treaty agreements to return abducted children to their countries of origin.
When a parent takes a child outside the United States against a court’s custody orders, the searching parent can usually turn to Hague treaty law for a resolution. If the abducting parent takes the child to a country that hasn’t yet acceded to the Hague Convention, the searching parent must rely on foreign law enforcement agencies for a resolution.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, international parental kidnapping occurs when one parent removes a child from the country with the intent to deny the custodial rights of the child’s other parent. The abducting parent may have legal custodial rights and may simply wish to deprive the other parent of his or her rights.
In addition to the Hague Convention, U.S. parents can rely on laws included in the International Parental Kidnapping Crime Act of 1993 for a domestic resolution. Under federal law, a convicted parental kidnapping offender can face up to three years in prison. If authorities decide to upgrade the charges to aggravated kidnapping, a convicted offender could spend up to 99 years behind bars.
All Western countries and former Soviet member states have joined the Hague Convention. Several nations in Africa and Asia have also signed the treaty, including South Africa, Turkey, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. According to the DOJ, the Hague Convention has helped recover abducted children in the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, Mexico and Australia. Many countries that haven’t yet acceded to the Hague Convention, such as China and India, have domestic laws or treaties designed to restore abducted children to their countries of origin.
According to Penn State Law School, international parental kidnapping wasn’t a widespread problem until the late 1960s. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act to standardize the legal procedure for restoring parents’ custodial rights after a parental kidnapping. Prior to the enactment of the UCCJA, state laws conflicted with one another, enabling parents, after losing a custody battle, to take their children across state lines for more favorable court hearings. Interstate parental kidnapping developed into the more serious crime of international parental kidnapping as international travel became more widely accessible.
Parental kidnapping can be traumatizing for children. According to Notre Dame Law School, around 350,000 parental kidnappings occur each year. Approximately 10% to 40% of these cases leave the kidnapped children severely traumatized. Moreover, many parental kidnappings result in serious physical or sexual abuse or even death for the kidnapped child. These crimes profoundly affect the families and loved ones of the kidnapped children, as well. The ripple effect can cause societal damage that is impossible to quantify.
Depending on the severity of the crime, courts may consider a parental kidnapping to be a first- or second-degree felony. If a parental kidnapping involves firearms or violence, authorities will upgrade the charge to aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony. A first-degree felony conviction can result in fines of up to $10,000 and a lifetime prison sentence. Authorities may downgrade the charge to a second-degree felony if the abducting parent willingly releases the child in a safe location.
U.S. federal authorities can work with foreign law enforcement agencies to track down abducted children and return them to their country of origin. The search can take months or years to conclude, and many parents choose to hire private investigators to speed up the process. When authorities find an abducted child, the child will typically return home within days or weeks.
The Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the DOJ offers legal support to parents seeking to reunite with their abducted children. The CEOS isn’t authorized to intervene in child abduction cases, but it can provide legal support for litigation and prosecution once the child returns to the U.S. In addition to providing this support, the CEOS works closely with federal prosecutors and authorities to facilitate the enforcement of Hague Convention guidelines.
Most child custody and visitation disputes fall under state and local jurisdiction. International parental kidnapping is one of the few domestic matters that fall under federal jurisdiction. Additional organizations that deal with international parental kidnapping cases include the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the DOJ’s Office for Victims of Crime.
Whether you’re facing charges of international parental kidnapping or you’re trying to recover your child, we’re here to help. Our firm offers criminal defense services for clients facing federal charges, and we believe that everyone deserves quality legal counsel.
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