International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Recovery Is Long Road for Victims of Child Abduction

Posted 1 January 2002 in StressPoints by Christina Cabanillas, Los Angeles, and Janet Brodsky, Seattle

Editors' note: This is an excerpt from an article that presents "a family abduction case involving two minor siblings who were located in one state and were to be reunified with their left-behind parent in another state after several years of separation. Coordination of services and careful advanced planning by professionals in two different states, all with a common goal of supporting the children's well-being, enabled this reunification to unfold with minimal stress added to the children." For the complete case study, click here and enter your passcodes.

Every year, hundreds of children are missing for periods of time due to abduction. It is estimated that approximately half a million family abductions and 200-300 non-family abductions occur each year in the United States. Motivations for abduction of children are divergent, ranging from attempting to keep the child from an allegedly abusive parent, to parents using the child as an instrument of revenge in bitter custody disputes, to exploiting the child physically or sexually to satisfy the psychopathology of the abductor. Children who have been placed in foster care or relative care due to alleged abuse by their parent(s) also can be at risk of abduction from placement by their parent(s). Family and non-family child abduction can be extremely traumatic for a child, and family reunification can be overwhelming, joyful, frightening and/or disappointing.

The process of locating children is complex and involves the arduous task of compiling bits of information and researching leads. It may be tempting to believe that in locating the child, the most difficult piece of the process has been completed. In fact, it is well-known among law enforcement, missing-children organizations, and social service and mental health professionals that the process of recovery and reunification can pose huge challenges. Recovery and reunification require collaboration between agencies that often operate under different policies and with varied roles. Recovery can involve a high level of secrecy because abducted children are especially at risk of harm if the abductor realizes that he or she has been discovered. Abducted children often have been given misinformation about their family members (i.e., being told that their left-behind parent is dead or will be killed if they tell, or that the left-behind parent abandoned them) and therefore may be frightened or angry when told their left-behind parent has been looking for them. Many abducted children also experience educational neglect, social isolation, and frequent moves, or undergo changed identities to keep their whereabouts hidden.

Click Here and enter your passcode to read the case study and learn about The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which offers a variety of library resources for professionals, parents and interested community members regarding the issue of child abduction.

Christina Cabanillas is with the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles, and Janet Brodsky is with the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress in Seattle.