America’s Hidden Crime: When the Kidnapper is Kin
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This report takes a comprehensive look at the serious but rarely understood crime of family abduction — when a child is kidnapped by a member of his or her own family. The report includes a comprehensive review of existing research, statistics, and current legislation on family abduction, and introduces findings from an exclusive new, national poll on the public’s perceptions about the issue. Finally, it offers a number of solutions that can effectively reduce the harm caused by family abductions and, in the long term, prevent or discourage family members from kidnapping their children in the first place.
The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. in January 2004 for the Polly Klaas Foundation, surveyed 1,021 adults nationwide and revealed that:
Four of five Americans vastly underestimate the threat of family abductions. These 80 percent of respondents consider stranger abductions to be more dangerous than or equally as dangerous as family abductions. The most recent federal data indicate that in 1999, approximately 1,773 family abductions occurred for every one stereotypical stranger abduction.
Eighty-one percent of Americans underestimate the percentage of children abducted by a family member out of all child kidnappings in the United States. The most recent federal data indicate that in 1999, 78 percent of all abducted children were taken by a family member.
After being informed about the pervasive nature of the problem and the emotional damage family abduction can cause, 83 percent of Americans expressed support for federal funding of law enforcement training on family abductions and 81 percent supported prevention education among parents and families. (complete poll results.) There is mounting evidence about family abduction that should serve as a sobering wake-up call to anyone who underestimates the importance of preventing family abductions.The evidence that family abduction is America’s hidden crime includes:
- The number of people in the high-risk group for family abduction — families going through custody disputes and divorce proceedings — is on the rise. Divorce rates have tripled since 1960, and today 10 million children live with a parent who is separated or divorced.
- Approximately 70 percent of law enforcement agencies do not have an established protocol or guidelines for family abductions. Investigations often stall while agencies try to figure out how to handle the case. Some are dismissed altogether as civil matters.
- Psychologists now define family abduction as a form of child endangerment. Snatched from a familiar setting and away from loved ones, the abducted child is forced into a fugitive’s lifestyle and taught to avoid and distrust authority figures. (Meet Aja Morse) Even following reunification, abducted children have difficulties establishing trusting relationships with other people.
The good news is that we know how to prevent family abductions and make it easier to find and return children if they are taken by a family member. The Polly Klaas Foundation recommends the following solutions:
|Meet Aja Morse|
“Many of you know me as ‘Katarina’ or ‘Kat Escada’, ‘Trisha’ or ‘Trish Wilcox’, or ‘Melissa Bleu’, but my real name is Aja Morse. Eight years ago my brother, sister and I were abducted. We were found in March 1999. At the time, I didn’t realize how it was going to destroy my life and my brother and sister’s. I was always afraid that the police were going to find us or that I’d mess up on one of my new names. My brother and sister and I never went to a doctor, dentist or to school. I tried to home school my little brother and sister since we weren’t allowed to go to school. People think parents do this out of love. But they’re only causing their children damage.”
—Aja Morse, 15
- Prevent family abductions by expanding prevention education and counseling programs for high-risk families.
- Discourage family members from kidnapping children by classifying family abductions as a felony and eliminating bureaucratic roadblocks to thorough investigations and prosecution of family abductors.
- Increase resources and training for law enforcement agencies to expedite search and recovery.
The statistics are clear: Every year, an alarming number of children continue to go missing due to a family abduction. The damages are impossible to ignore: Children suffer serious emotional and physical consequences as a result of family abductions. The source of the problem has been identified: the lack of knowledge and protocol on family abductions among agencies responsible for dealing with the problem is hampering investigation and recovery. The solution is clear: Increased funding for these agencies to equip themselves with the tools needed to battle the problem — training and education — can prevent or reduce the harm caused by family abductions.
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