Approximately 800,000 children annually are reported missing, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics—a staggering 2,000 minors daily on average. Family members account for 203,000, more than a quarter, of these child abductions, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) claims. In 78 percent of child kidnappings, the offender was the noncustodial parent, according to the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (“NISMART”).

Among the reasons cited by parents for violating the custody or visitation rights of their mates by abducting their children are to punish the non-offending parent or to compel reconciliation with the estranged parent. Fear of losing custody or visitation rights, and, in rare instances, shielding the minor from an alleged neglectful or physically or sexually abusive parent, are other reasons underlying parental kidnapping.

Under Massachusetts law, a minor’s relative who takes a child from his or her custodian without lawful authority and intends to hold the youth “permanently or for a protracted period,” is subject to a maximum one year in prison, a thousand-dollar fine, or both. Unlawfully removing the child from the Commonwealth and exposing the minor to danger is punishable by up to a $5,000 fine and a maximum five-year prison term.

Often, an accused parental kidnapper also faces a charge of violating a restraining order. Violation of such an order could result in a maximum fine of $5,000 and up to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Criminal liability against a parent as outlined above pre-supposes an existing court-issued custody order concerning the parents’ children. In a 1989 case, a woman took her five- and three-year-old sons from their Massachusetts home and relocated to Puerto Rico ten days before her estranged husband obtained a temporary custody order, unbeknownst to her.

The mother was arrested for parental kidnapping. The Supreme Judicial Court acknowledged the presumption under Massachusetts law that both parents have equal custodial rights of their children. The Court concluded that a parent who takes his or her children from the other parent before any court proceeding has generated a custody order is not acting “without lawful authority” as defined by the Commonwealth’s statute, and cannot be convicted of parental kidnapping.

At the national level, the Federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act requires every state’s appropriate authorities to enforce and not modify (with certain exceptions) any child custody determination made by another state’s court. This full faith and credit provision means that if another state having jurisdiction over a child custody question has pending custody proceedings outside the Commonwealth, a Massachusetts judge, for example, cannot issue a custody order in a non-emergency care and protection hearing involving the same minor without running afoul of the federal Act. The federal statute prevents two states from concurrently assuming jurisdiction over the same custody matter. It considers the resident state of the child or either parent to be the proper forum to resolve the dispute.

Unfortunately, sometimes—especially in particularly contentious divorce proceedings—family lawyers confront false kidnapping claims. Sometimes, these are brought by a vengeful custodial parent against a defendant parent during the latter’s designated visitation period when a child is returned late to the custodial parent. In such instances, experienced divorce counsel can refute spurious accusations through proof that unforeseen circumstances, such as traffic congestion, a delayed or cancelled flight or unexpected injury or illness caused the visitation to exceed the allotted time.

In other cases, noncustodial parents, fearful that their children are targets of physical or mental abuse by the custodial parent, may not return the child after a scheduled visit. When such unilateral action is taken, experienced divorce attorneys will seek relief from the probate court by arguing that the noncustodial parent was acting in the best interest of the child by protecting the youth from an unsafe home environment.

Under Massachusetts law, either spouse in a pending divorce action may petition the Probate and Family Court to issue an order to prohibit the other spouse from imposing any restraint on the personal liberty of the petitioner or his or her minor children during the pendency of the divorce proceedings. Likewise, by statute, a minor over whom a Massachusetts probate court has jurisdiction, either because the child was born, or has resided for at least five years, in the Commonwealth, cannot be removed from Massachusetts without the child’s consent, if he or she is of “suitable age” to give it. If the child is too young to consent, the child cannot be removed without the approval of both parents, unless the Court, upon cause shown, otherwise orders.

If you have any questions about child custody or support or any other issues regarding family law, please contact our firm. You may schedule a free consultation with an experienced family law lawyer today. Call our offices at 978-225-9030 during business hours or complete a contact form online.