Assessing the damage of family abduction

August 05, 2008|By Geoffrey Greif

The quick conclusion to Clark Rockefeller's abduction of his daughter Reigh to Baltimore ended what could have been a protracted and potentially harmful voyage for the young girl. While abduction of any length poses an emotional and physical threat to a child's well-being, the lengthier the abduction, the greater the threat, regardless of whether the abductor is the father or the mother. I have spent the last year working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to study the long-term impact of abduction on children who were taken by a parent many years ago. The people I have interviewed are now ages 21 to 53 and were missing as recently as four years ago and as long ago as 40 years ago. They are men and women of different races and religions who were taken by fathers and mothers and grew up in hiding all over the United States and in Europe.

One woman was born overseas and taken to the U.S. by her father and did not see her mother for over 10 years.

One man and his brother were taken by their father to Europe for 18 months and placed in a boarding school before Interpol tracked them down.

Another woman was taken, along with her two younger siblings, by her mother and maternal grandmother when she was 9 and was on the run for three years before being rescued during a dramatic police raid.

A different young woman was taken by her mother and stepfather when she was 12. They moved around for over a year and settled in a community out West. When she told her boyfriend she was on the run, her stepfather found out and made plans to go into hiding again. She refused to go with them and was put on a plane back to her father.

Another young man told me he called the national center when, after five years in hiding, he was tired of concealing his identity and couldn't get a driver's license or attend proms as he was not enrolled in school.

Why would a child who is capable of escaping an abducting parent not do so? Many of those I interviewed said they feared their abducting father or mother would end up in jail and that they would lose contact with them. In a few of the cases, the person I interviewed said that once they went on the run, the high level of conflict related to divorce ended - they were no longer a ping pong ball between their parents' divorce paddles. That was a tremendous relief after years of court visits and mental health evaluations. One man noted how much better his younger brother started to fare emotionally when he was no longer the target of two warring parents. He decided not to turn in his father because of this positive change in his brother.

When an abduction begins, quick action is the best antidote. With many of the people I interviewed, abduction had been threatened or was anticipated. Parents in high-conflict custody battles need to be aware that abduction may occur if one parent is sufficiently dissatisfied. Photos of children should be kept up-to-date, school personnel alerted about the custody arrangements, and children (depending on the age) taught about what to do if they are kidnapped.

The longer the abduction goes on, the more difficult it is to resolve without emotional scars. Almost all of the 20 children I learned about from interviewing them, their siblings and their parents seem to have suffered in some way. In a few cases, their suffering is significant still - intimate relationships are hard to form, fears of abduction related to their own children abound, alcohol and drugs are abused to cope with anxiety and depression. These situations, born of parental anger and distrust, rarely end well for the children involved.

What will happen to Reigh? How will she look back on this event five, 10 or 20 years from now? It is impossible to predict the outcome for any one person. Children are resilient; her abduction was brief and she probably was well treated during the time missing. She should be shielded from the media. Ideally, her mother will provide a nurturing environment that will let her process this potentially traumatic event at different developmental stages as she grows up. And, ideally, others around her will let her return to her childhood ways and not force her to grow up a little faster, as so many other abducted children have been forced to do.

Geoffrey Greif is a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and author of the book "When Parents Kidnap." His e-mail address is

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