United States of America

Children are victims of child abduction and parental alienation

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Table of Contents


USA definition of the best interest of a child: is meant to take into consideration many factors, including the circumstances of child and parents, the capacity of parents, and the child’s safety and well-being.


More than 420,000 cases of missing children under the age of 18 were reported to law enforcement in 2019 alone. While most (400,000) missing children are runaways, around 10,000 of the total cases of missing children were classified as endangered, or being in physical danger; 5,000 abducted and 5,000 as having a physical or mental disability.

Real figures are likely higher though due to underreporting. Given that cases of missing children are often not reported to police, the Department of Justice conducts a study titled The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART). NISMART uses surveys with adult households, juvenile facilities and law enforcement to get a more accurate picture of the incidence of missing children. The latest NISMART is currently underway with results expected to be released this year. 

Many, many more children are victims of parental alienation every year. Some studies suggest that as many as 740,000 children and adolescents are victims of parental alienation. This figure does not, however, include children in intact families and so we expect the number to be even higher.



Call To Action

Joint custody must be the default in all states. Clearly lengthy, stressful custody proceedings are not in the best interest of the child. When parents go into court knowing that shared custody is not the norm, they are much more likely to fight the other parent for custody and child support. This creates much tension and conflict which negatively affects the children and can fuel parental alienation and in extreme situations lead to child abduction by a parent.

Divorce proceedings need to be resolved much faster than the current 18-month average and if that cannot be reduced significantly, both parents should have 50-50 custody until custody arrangements are finalized, unless there is evidence that such arrangements would put the child at harm.


Parental alienation should be criminalized as a form of child abuse.

Governments should not benefit financially from child support payments. All states should pass legislation to ensure that 100% of past-due child support payments collected by the state are passed onto children and not taken by the government.

Family Law

While international parental child abduction is a federal crime, laws regarding domestic parental child abduction cases are different in each state. In many states, when there is no formal custody order and parents are living separately, parental abduction is not a crime. However, crossing state lines with the child is considered abduction in most states.

Similarly, custody laws vary by state. In general, they do little to encourage joint custody as it is not the default scenario in most states. Rather child custody cases start with the assumption that one parent should be granted sole or more than half custody, fueling high-conflict custody battles and potentially even parental alienation.

There is little incentive for states to change laws as the government benefits financially from support payments. In fact, when the government collects past-due child support payments for families enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the state is allowed to keep the funds to reimburse itself for providing such assistance to vulnerable families. That means that rather than passing the child support collected by the state to some of the most vulnerable children, the state keeps those funds. Most states keep the entire amount collected and less than half of the states pass a small portion – a whopping $50 on average – on to the child. Colorado and Minnesota are the only states that have disregarded this policy and enacted a full pass-through so that all funds collected are passed to the family.



All states must follow suit to ensure the well-being of children and to avoid any conflict of interest in child custody laws.

Parental alienation – or when a child becomes estranged from a parent due to the manipulation of the other parent – is not a crime under federal or state laws although some courts consider it to seriously affect the long-term development of a child. The closest courts come to addressing parental alienation is by suspending child support payments from the alienated parent or mandating reunification therapy. Both are again done ad hoc.

Parental Abduction


Contrary to popular belief, most abducted children are kidnapped by a family member and not by a stranger. Though outdated, the last reliable NISMART study found that the prevalence of family abductions in the US to be 2.6 cases per 1000 children in 1988 and 3.15 in 1999. That is 164,320 and 226,485 children respectively. The results of the 2020 NISMART survey should be released this year. Other researchers believe as many as 875,000 or 12 per 1,000 children are abducted by a family member each year. This same study found that 90% of family abductions were perpetrated by a parent. Abducted children are more likely to come from low-income families and separated estranged, or divorced parents.

This is just a drop in the bucket – less than half of the cases (43%) were actually reported to law enforcement. Some parents may not report parental child abduction because they do not know it is a crime; others because they have no faith in the legal system to resolve their cases. While parental child abduction is illegal under federal law, law enforcement often does not take these cases with the same seriousness as stranger abduction; many wrongly assume they are ‘private matters,’ a ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘an argument.’

Because abductions usually happen during scheduled visitations, law enforcement often advises the parent to wait a while to see if the situation resolves itself. This is, however, counterproductive since the initial few hours are often the most important for locating the abducted child.

Parental abduction is a form of imprisonment and children are the victims.

Abducted children suffer from the short- and long-term psychological effects of parental abduction, including traumatic stress, child maltreatment, and witnessing family violence. Children report feelings of unworthiness or resentment towards one or both parents. The left-behind parent can be blamed for not finding the child or accused of doing something that triggered the abduction. Children may also feel they have lost both parents and never regain trust in the abducting parent. Even those who are reunited with the left-behind parent may struggle to rebuild their relationship with the parent and even the extended family.


Under U.S. law, international parental child abduction is a crime. U.S. government authorities pursue the return of American children abducted across national borders, although solving such cases is often complex. The United States is a signatory of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction – an international treaty whereby countries commit to working together to resolve international child abduction cases.

American parents can request the return of their child(ren) if they were abducted to another country that has signed the convention. Likewise, non-American parents can request the return of their child(ren) if they were abducted to the United States. Parents can file for the return or access to their child(ren) by filing an application through the U.S. government. Country officers support the families and forward the application to their counterparts in the foreign country in an attempt to come to a voluntary or judicial agreement.

In 2019, officers handled some 716 abduction cases of children retained outside the United States. 220 children were returned to the States that year. Unfortunately, the Hague Convention – like most international treaties – is not legally binding. Because of this, we witness many countries, such as Japan, that fail to abide by it even if they signed it. In 2019, the United States identified several countries that regularly fail to comply with the treaty, including signatory countries. These countries include Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Jordan, Peru, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates. Children taken to these countries, regardless of their nationality, are at a higher risk of not being reunited with the left-behind parent or of having to deal with a lengthy procedure.

To combat non-compliance with the Hague Convention the U.S. government passed the Goldman Act named after Sean Goldman – an American child abducted to Brazil for five years. Under this act, if a country fails to resolve at least 30% of abduction cases pending more than 12 months under the Hague Convention, the US Secretary of State is required to take action against that foreign country. This can include withdrawing foreign aid and even security assistance. The Act, unfortunately, is not being used with countries such as Japan never having resolved any child Hague cases – ever!

Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is an even bigger issue than abduction – an issue that many ignore, that is often hidden behind closed doors and that has a devastating effect on children. Simply put parental alienation is when a child becomes estranged from one parent due to the psychological manipulation of another parent. This manipulation often results in the child fearing, disrespecting, or showing hostility towards the estranged parent and can also extend to other relatives. That parent is often eventually removed from the child’s life, sometimes slowly and sometimes abruptly.

Parental alienation results in significant stress on the child and alienated parent and increases the risk of the child suffering from mental illness. In fact, parental alienation can be diagnosed as a mental disorder in children and is a form of child abuse.

Children who are victims of parental alienation are at a higher risk of substance abuse and addiction, low self-esteem, trust issues, and relationship problems.

Hostile custody and divorce proceedings can fuel parental alienation – showing again how current custody laws fail to create an environment that supports the well-being of children.


Parental child abduction: Parents can enroll in the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP). This program alerts the parent of a pending passport application or renewal for their child.

To enroll your child in CPIAP:

1. Download and complete the CPIAP request form, DS-3077  (one per child).

2. Send proof of your identity using one of the following documents:      

– Your driver’s license
– Your passport, or
– Other form of photo identification with signature

3. Provide documentary evidence of your legal relationship to the child, such as:

– Child’s birth certificate,
– Current custody/guardianship/adoption court order(s) from a court of competent jurisdiction,
– Evidence of authority to act on behalf of parent or legal custodian, or
– Affidavit of Paternity

4. Send your completed request form and supporting documents using one of the options listed below. Your application can be processed more quickly when you email your documents.


U.S. Department of State
Overseas Citizen Services Office of Children’s Issues
Attention: CPIAP
SA-17, 9th Floor
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20522

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has identified a number of risk factors that may increase the chance that a family member may abduct a child. Keep an eye out for these. However, the absence of any of the following does not mean that an abduction will not occur. These risk factors include having a family member who:

  • Has previously abducted or threatened to abduct a child
  • Has a history of marital instability, lack of cooperation with the other parent, domestic violence, or child abuse
  • Has a criminal record
  • Has stronger ties to a different state, province, or country than those to where s/he currently resides
  • Has no job, can work anywhere, or is financially independent
  • Is engaged in planning activities such as quitting a job, selling a home, closing accounts, hiding or destroying documents, purchasing travel tickets for your child, altering their appearance, or applying for renewed or duplicate documents for the child such as;
    • New passports or visas
    • Birth certificates
    • School or medical records

Parental alienation: While there are no concrete ways to prevent alienation, both parents can take certain steps to maintain an amicable relationship post-separation. This includes agreeing to child custody terms on their own and avoiding legal mediation which can quickly turn into high-conflict custody battles. Children’s support systems, including teachers, relatives, and doctors also have a responsibility to check-in on children, especially those known to be living in separated or divorced households.

Parents who believe that their children are being subjected to parental alienation tactics can strategically respond to the child and other parent’s behavior. This includes communicating effectively with their children to counter any bad talk by the other parent or not allowing the other parents to shorten or get in the way of visitation time. A detailed list can be found


Missing Child

If you suspect your child is at risk of being abducted internationally:

  • Contact your attorney.

  • Consider obtaining a court order that prohibits the child from traveling out of the court’s jurisdiction, the state, or the country.

  • Inform law enforcement and request that the missing child’s information is entered into the National Crime Information Center as soon as possible so the search can be widened. Obtain information from all law enforcement officials you work with, including full name, email, direct phone number, 24-hour dispatch line, and back up officer.

  • Contact airlines and airport police stationed at departing airports to inform them of a court order. When contacting airlines, request to speak with an airline corporate security officer and be ready to prove your relationship to the child. Check if there is a reservation under your child’s name.

  • Contact your embassy or consulate if the child is a dual citizen. If you suspect your child has been taken out of the state, you can notify the nearest FBI field office.

If you have any challenges getting local law enforcement to mobilize, reach out to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline. NCMEC is a non-profit organization that provides support to parents whose children are missing, including domestic and international family abductions.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline: 1-800-843-5678

If your child is present in one of the countries the United States has partnered with under the Hague Convention, you can file an application requesting the child be returned to the United States or request access to the child. To do so, reach out to the Office of Children’s Issues that serves as the focal point for both parties as well as foreign central authorities and U.S. embassies abroad. The duty officer provides 24-hour assistance by phone or email.

The Office of Children’s Issues: 1-888-407-4747 or PreventAbduction1@state.gov

Credit & Contribution

Thanks to Deanielle Dawra in the production of this country page.

Legal Disclaimer

The materials available on this web site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

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