In high conflict custody battles or family situations in which domestic violence is present, the risk for parental kidnapping can be real. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (via the FBI), approximately 200,000 of the 260,000 children abducted each year are taken by a family member. In 78% of these kidnappings, the abductor is a non-custodial parent.
While kidnapping of any kind is — thankfully — still a rare occurrence for the vast majority of separated or divorced families, if you’re concerned that your child could be at risk, there are several practical steps you can take right now to help keep your child safe.
Get Your Child Custody Plan in Writing
One thread that connects many parental kidnapping cases is a lack formal custody agreements between co-parents. There may be a vague verbal agreement about custody, or there is literally no agreement and parenting time is random (i.e., a co-parent texts every so often when they want to see the child). This lack of clarity around custody and parenting time leaves the door open for either parent to “play games” with access to the children:
- If one parent is upset with the other, they may deny access to the child by cutting off physical contact. “You don’t deserve to see your child!”
- Pick up and drop off times may be inconsistent or erratic, disrupting the child’s ability to get to school on time or participate in normal activities.
- In extreme situations, the parent may decide to leave the area with the child without letting the other parent know their plans.
The benefit of having a written custody plan at all times — before and after your divorce — is that should any red flags ever occur, you have recourse to go to the courts to address the matter. For example, if your custody plan clearly states that your co-parent has time with the kids until 7 pm on a certain weekday, but they often refuse to bring the kids back until several hours past the agreed upon time, the courts could decide to limit their parenting time away or issue another sanction.
Without a written plan in place, accusing a parent of violating a custody agreement or parental kidnapping may be difficult to prove, depending on the circumstances. In a situation where the parent leaves the area with the child, they may simply claim that you misunderstood. This may be difficult to dispute without a written agreement that you can show was broken.
Creating a Temporary Custody Plan
When you divorce and have children, it’s part of the process to create a custody plan that addresses physical and legal custody and parenting time schedules. This becomes part of your final settlement.
If you are separated, but not yet divorced, it’s critical to take the time to put in place a temporary custody plan that outlines these same things: where the child will primarily live, how much time the child will spend with each parent, and how important decisions (schooling, medical and religious) will be made for the children. The temporary plan covers the time before your divorce is final.
Going to court with a “hunch” that the other parent is planning to abduct your child probably won’t get you very far or, in some cases, could potentially be viewed parental alienation on your part. The best way to avoid any confusion over what is happening is to gather together every bit of evidence you can to prove your point.
- Is your former spouse failing to follow the current custody order? Note dates and times of transgressions.
- Are you noticing signs of parental alienation? Write a detailed account of what you’re noticing.
- Did you find out that your former spouse posted on Facebook about accepting a new job in a different state and moving soon (and these are things you knew nothing about)? Print out a screenshot.
- Has your child mentioned odd things the other parent has said or done? Keep a list.
- Is your ex blocking parenting time and threatening you that “you’re never seeing your kids again”? Call 911 in an emergency. See more below about seeking a restraining order.
In general, it’s a good idea to hang onto as much hard evidence as you can in the form of texts, emails, receipts, bits of conversation, etc., as possible. This is the kind of information the courts will accept and examine.
Don’t Keep Parental Kidnapping Worries to Yourself
Keep your family law attorney informed about your concerns and show them the information you’ve been logging. Your attorney can guide you on how to proceed. If circumstances warrant, the court could potentially limit the other parent’s contact with the child to supervised visitation or otherwise prohibit contact until issues are resolved. In the event of the threat of international child kidnapping, the courts may seize your child’s passport so s/he cannot leave the country.
File for a Temporary Restraining Order
If the conduct of the other parent is threatening, harassing, or violent towards you and/or your child, you may be able to seek a temporary restraining order (TRO) against this person by visiting your local police department or family court to fill out the appropriate paperwork. See How to Get a NJ Temporary Restraining Order for more on the TRO process and to see the actual paperwork.
Keep Your Child’s School or Daycare Provider Updated on Parental Access
Provide your child’s school with a copy of your custody agreement to have on file, and be clear about which adults have the right to pick up your child at school.
Important: According to N.J.A.C. 10:122-6.5, schools must be given a court order if a non- custodial parent has been denied access to the child or only granted limited custody.
When handing over the paperwork, also take another look at your child’s emergency contact form and make adjustments to remove the other parent’s name. This reduces the possible mistake of allowing the parent access should you not be reachable if your child requires sudden early pick up.
In the Event of Imminent Danger, Contact the Police
If you discover the other parent is in the process of fleeing in violation of a court order or with the purpose of kidnapping your child, call 911 for immediate assistance. The police can help you file a NJ criminal complaint against the other parent when appropriate.
Are you concerned about the serious issue of parental kidnapping? Please contact us to speak with one of our child custody attorneys. Get answers to all your questions and start putting your mind at ease. Safeguard your children today. To schedule a confidential consultation, please call us at 888-888-0919, or please click the green button below.
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