A child is missing Why parents abduct their own kids

January 25, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

When Bob Shuman was 4 years old, his father picked him up from his mother's house in Pennsylvania for a weekend visit and drove straight to Los Angeles. For the next 20 years, Mr. Shuman had virtually no contact with his mother.

He spent his childhood in California with his father and a stepmother pained and confused about a mother he was not permitted to mention.

And he was never allowed to express anger about being abducted.

"It was portrayed to me that my real mother was not a nice person, that my father saved me from that environment and that I was a lucky person," says Mr. Shuman, now a counselor in the Employee Assistance Program for Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "In those days, the idea was to keep your mouth shut and go on. It was a family secret, one of those things that you don't talk about.

"My stepmother was threatened by it, she wanted me to see her

as my real mother. So the family system was 'I needed to protect her feelings.' . . . It was not until I was an adult that I could begin to deal with this."

It has proved difficult for the 39-year-old counselor to understand his parents: A mother who gave birth to him when she was 15 and later struggled with drug and alcohol abuse; a father who had initially hoped his wife would follow him to the West Coast if he used his son as bait.

Parental abduction can be not only traumatic but also terribly complex, say Geoffrey Greif and Rebecca Hegar, associate professors at the University of Maryland School of Social Work at Baltimore, in their new book, "When Parents Kidnap: The Families Behind the Headlines" ($22.95, The Free Press).

The book marks the first attempt to document parental kidnapping from the point of view of social science rather than criminal justice. It considers the situations of the children, the searching parents and the abductors.

The authors believe civil and criminal definitions of parental abduction should become more uniform. They point out that in Texas interference with child custody is a third-degree felony that applies to a parent who takes, retains or entices a child younger than 18 away from a custodial parent in violation of a court order.

In Maryland, however, it is only a misdemeanor to abduct a child under the age of 12 from a custodial parent -- unless the child is taken out of state.

"If you're a police officer and you've got a Dontay Carter on the loose vs. some mother who has run away with the kids, you put the mother on the bottom of the pile," says Dr. Greif. "It's hard to convince people that with these situations, you have a series of potential traumas that can affect society for a number of years."

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that parental abductions run as high as 350,000 a year in the United States and that most occur after school holidays in the summer months and after Christmas. Although most of the children are returned to their homes within a week or so, according to Dr. Greif, as many as 160,000 children remain missing, and at risk, for longer periods of time. The longer a child is missing, the less likely it is that a child will be returned to the searching parent.

Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, praises the book by Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar and points to the Census Bureau's projected divorce rates -- about half of all marriages in the United States will end in divorce -- as proof that the problem of abductions may increase.

"There are still all of these underlying assumptions that parental abduction is a civil problem: a problem of domestic relations, something the lawyers should work out," he says. "People still think if the kidnapped child is with a parent, that's not someone who is going to hurt them.

"The single most powerful bit of data for us [in Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar's book] addresses parents' motive for kidnapping: It turns out that 80 percent of the parents take a child from anger or to get revenge, and not as an act of love [according to the parents left behind]. And when a child is taken out of those circumstances, it's clear he or she is going to be used as a pawn. And that the child is a victim."

The authors evaluated detailed questionnaires from 371 parents left behind in abductions as well as talking to abducted children and their abductors. They found more than half the abductors were reported violent and a third of those parents left behind said they had also been accused of being violent or had engaged in acts of family violence. In many situations, both parents posed a threat to their children.

However, Dr. Greif and Dr. Hegar discovered a variety of circumstances leading to kidnapping:

* Noncustodial parents felt acutely isolated from their children.

* The parents felt the children were being turned against them.

* The parents resented the sense of being replaced by stepparents.

* Others fled with their children from households in which they were physically abused.

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