Is Your Child at Risk of International Parental Abduction?

In 2012, Ahmed Abuhamda convinced his ex-wife to sign passport applications for their three children so that he could take them to his sister’s wedding in Gaza.  He told her that he had a reservation confirmed for a return trip to their home in Kansas.

But instead of returning the children as scheduled, he kept them in Gaza, which is ruled by the terrorist group Hamas.  Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza have repeatedly fired rockets at neighboring Israel, which has launched air strikes in response.

In 1999, David Goldman, an American citizen, married Bruna Bianchi Carneiro Ribiero, a Brazilian citizen.  Their son Sean was born in New Jersey in 2000.

In 2004, David took his wife and son to the airport for a planned two-week vacation to visit her parents in Brazil.  Upon Bruna’s arrival, she called to tell David that the marriage was over and that she and Sean would not be returning to the US.

These cases are far from unusual.

In 2012 there were 799 cases of international parental child abduction reported in the US, involving 1,144 children who are US citizens.  There are believed to be at least as many unreported cases.

Is Your North Carolina Child at Risk of International Parental Abduction?

According to A Family Resource Guide on International Parental Kidnapping, published by the US Department of Justice, profiles of parents who may commit international parental abduction include:

  • Parents who have threatened to abduct the children or who have abducted them before
  • Parents who believe that their children have been abused, and who have social support for this belief
  • Parents who are paranoid or sociopathic
  • Parents who have strong ties to another country and were in a mixed-culture marriage
  • Parents who feel disenfranchised by the US legal system (especially those who are poor,  members of minority groups, or subject to abuse) who have family and social support

Abducting parents are likely to deny the value of the other parent to the child.  They often believe that they know what’s best for the child, and they don’t understand why they should be required to share custody with the other parent.

It is easiest for parents to abduct young children who can’t protest or seek help and who are dependent and easier to conceal.  Parents who abduct their children often have financial and other support from family members and friends.

Other factors and warning signs associated with abduction include:

  • Parents who have no jobs or who are financially independent
  • Parents who lack strong ties to their communities
  • A parent who take steps such as quitting a job, selling a home or terminating a lease, selling furniture or putting it into storage, applying for passports for the children,  seeking medical and school records for the children, and/or changing his or her appearance
  • A parent whose immigration status affects his or her ability to stay in the US, especially if this status has changed recently
  • A parent with a history of domestic violence or child abuse
  • A parent with a criminal record

How to Protect Your Child from International Parental Abduction

The custody order for a child should specify each parent’s rights.  Vague terms like “reasonable visitation” should be avoided, as should joint custody where there is a history of abduction or a strong risk of it.

The order should also clearly state the basis for the court’s jurisdiction over the child, and demonstrate that both parties had the opportunity to present their positions regarding custody to the court.  The court’s exercise of jurisdiction must comply with the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA) in order to be enforced nationwide.

The court order can prohibit the removal of a child from the state without the written permission of the other parent, and can also prohibit one parent from applying for a passport for the child.  One parent can also be required to surrender a child’s passport to the other, or to a neutral third party (such as the court or an attorney).

If there’s a concern that a child will be taken to a particular foreign country, that country’s consulate or embassy can be notified of the terms of the custody order and asked not to issue a visa for the child.

Courts are more likely to order specific measures to prevent parental abduction where the risk of abduction is high, it would be difficult for the non-abducting parent to recover the child from a foreign country, and the abduction is likely to be harmful to the child.

Some other steps that parents can take to reduce the risk of parental kidnapping, or to improve the odds of recovering the child quickly, are:

  • Keep up-to-date photos of the child.
  • Prepare a detailed written description of the child, including height, weight, hair and eye color, and any distinctive physical characteristics or birthmarks;  keep this updated.
  • Keep copies of the child’s passport and social security number if the original documents are in the possession of the other parent.
  • Have the child fingerprinted.
  • Teach the child to use the telephone and to call the police if abducted.
  • Notify schools, day care providers, and any after-school activity providers of the terms of the custody order;  make sure they have written guidelines about who the child can be released to and that they obey such directions.  Warn them of a specific abduction threat if applicable.
  • Register the child with the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP), as discussed below.

Passport Controls

The Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program (CPIAP) allows parents to register their US citizen children under the age of 18 in the US State Department’s Passport Lookout System.  If someone submits a passport application for a child registered in CPIAP, the Department alerts the parent or parents.

A parent can then submit an objection to the issuance of a passport for the child, and this objection will be transmitted to all US passport agencies and US embassies and consulates abroad.

This alert can also provide one parent with an early warning that the other may intend to abduct the child.

Either or both parents can register a child with the system.  A parent need not have custody to register, but cannot have had parental rights terminated.

However, registering a child with CPIAP does not guarantee that a child will not be issued a passport.  The parent who requested the alert may consent to the passport being issued.  Or the parent seeking the passport may be able to prove that he or she has sole custody or a court order permitting the parent to travel with the child.

A parent who requested an alert will generally have 30 days to consent or object to issuance of the passport.  However, if the applicant for the child’s passport can demonstrate that he or she has the sole authority to apply for the child’s passport  it may still be issued at any time.

If a child already has a passport, a parent can register to be notified if Passport Services receives an application for renewal.

The Department of State may not revoke a passport that has been issued for a child.  Also, there is no mechanism to track where a passport has been used or at what point a child left the US.

Responding to a Case of International Parental Child Abduction

The US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs helps parents return their abducted children to the US.

A parent’s first step is to contact local law enforcement and the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues.

The police can take a missing person’s report and enter the child’s name into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) computer database (even if the child is believed to already be in another country).

The State Department contact information is:

United States Department of State
Bureau of Consular Affairs
Office of Children’s Issuesaskci@state.gov1-888-407-4747, Toll Free Phone from the United States & Canada:
1-202-501-4444, from abroad(Call between 8:15a.m. and 5:00 p.m. EST)Before calling, a parent should collect documents and information such as the child’s photo and birth certificate, custody orders, the other parent’s name and contact information, names and contact information for the abducting parent’s family members’ names, etc.The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Hague Abduction Convention)If the child has been taken to a country that is a US partner under the Hague Abduction Convention, the US State Department can accept the parent’s application and forward it to the foreign governmental entity that handles cases of child abductions.  The State Department can then monitor the progress of the matter.The Hague Abduction Convention applies to children younger than 16 years old who have been taken to signatory countries.Countries that have signed the Hague Abduction Convention agree that a child who was living in one Convention country, and who has been removed to or retained in another Convention country in violation of the left-behind parent’s custodial rights, shall be promptly returned to the original country.  Once the child is returned, the custody dispute is resolved by the original country’s courts.A parent starts the Hague Convention process by filling out a form.Sometimes just starting the Hague Convention process can be enough to convince the abducting parent to return the child.  However, most Hague Convention cases go to trial.  The non-abducting parent will be required to retain a local attorney in the country where the child is located to petition the court for the child’s return.  The State Department can provide a list of attorneys in the country where the child has been taken.   The non-abducting parent may also want to attend the hearing on the application for return of the child.Even if a country is a signatory to the Hague Convention, its courts may refuse to return a child if:

  • There is a grave risk that the child would be exposed to physical or psychological harm or otherwise placed in an intolerable situation in his or her country of habitual residence;
  • The child objects to being returned and has reached an age and degree of maturity at which the court can take account of the child’s views; or
  • The child’s return would violate the fundamental principles of human rights and freedoms of the country where the child is being held.

What if a country hasn’t signed the Hague Convention?

Courts in countries that have not signed the Hague Convention may not recognize custody orders from US courts at all.  However, parents can still attempt to involve the courts of such countries and seek the return of their children.

This is a challenging process for many reasons.

The abducting parent may have a significant advantage if the legal proceedings take place in her or her home country.  The local courts may favor their own citizens, or may have a strong bias that children “belong” with either their mother or father.

The legal proceedings may be conducted in a language the parent seeking to recover the children doesn’t understand, and even a skilled translator may have difficulty conveying all the nuances.

Also, taking part in a foreign country’s legal proceedings may be seen as accepting that court’s jurisdiction over the child and the custody dispute.

The situation is not hopeless, however.  Even if a foreign court doesn’t consider itself bound by a US court’s decision, it may consider the decision evidence of the best interests of the children.  Or the foreign court may enforce the order out of general respect for the US and its citizens.

To bring an action in a foreign country to recover custody of a child, a parent will likely need to retain a foreign attorney in that location.

What if you don’t know where your child is?

If you have reason to believe your child has been taken to a particular country, but you don’t know exactly where, a consular officer from a US Embassy or Consulate in that country can work with local government officials to try to locate the child.

The consular official will need:

  • The child’s full name (and any other names by which the child may be known – for example, nicknames and names in other languages);
  • The child’s date and place of birth;
  • The name and aliases of the abducting parent;
  • The names, addresses, and phone numbers of the abducting parent’s relatives, employers, lawyers, and business connections;  and
  • The child’s last known location.

The International Police Organization (INTERPOL) can issue a Yellow Notice that will notify INTERPOL when your child passes through an international border that is connected to the INTERPOL system. An INTERPOL Red Notice can be issued for the abducting parent if there is a state or federal warrant for his or her arrest. Local police can advise on how to contact INTERPOL.

Bringing Criminal Charges

The International Parental Kidnapping Act of 1993 (IPKCA) makes is a federal crime to remove a child from the US, or retain a child outside the US, with the intent to obstruct a parent’s custodial rights.  The crime is punishable by up to three years in federal prison.  However, prosecutors only rarely bring charges under the Act.

International parental abduction is also a crime under the laws of every US state and the District of Columbia.

Parents should think carefully before bringing criminal charges against an abducting parent.  Filing charges might either help or hinder the recovery of the child, depending on the circumstances.

Filing criminal charges can encourage foreign law enforcement officials to find the abducting parent (and thus the child).  As noted above, an arrest warrant will also lead to the issuance of an INTERPOL red notice and stop the abducting parent from taking the child across certain international borders.  If the abducting parent is a US citizen, the arrest warrant will be grounds for revoking his or her passport, which may limit his or her ability to travel.  Without a valid US passport, the abducting parent may also not be able to remain in a foreign country.

However, pending criminal charges may make a foreign court less likely to return a child under the Hague Abduction Convention.  Many judges may not want to order the return of a child if the abducting parent is at risk of arrest upon return to the US and thus cannot accompany that child back to the US.  Or a parent who fears arrest may be likely be less likely to return voluntarily, and may go deeper into hiding

Having a parent arrested, prosecuted, and potentially imprisoned may be emotionally devastating to a child, especially if the child thinks this is his or her “fault.”

The non-abducting parent may request that charges be dropped in order to expedite the child’s return.  However, only the legal entity which ordered the arrest has the power to drop the charges.

It’s important to remember that a criminal warrant authorizes law enforcement officials to seize the parent – not the child.  The apprehended parent may be able to hide the child with a relative or friend, and refuse to reveal the child’s location even after arrest.  However, an arrested parent may agree to turn over the child in exchange for having criminal charges dropped or reduced in severity.

A parent who does wish to bring criminal charges should start the process by reporting the abduction to law enforcement authorities in the parent’s own community.

Law enforcement personnel should immediately enter the child’s information into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing Person Database.  However, entering the child on the NCIC database does not automatically start criminal proceedings against the abducting parent.

Parents may wish to meet with their local prosecutor’s office to encourage the filing of criminal charges against the abducting parent.

Parents may also report an abduction directly to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and request a meeting with the local Assistant US Attorney to discuss prosecution on federal criminal charges.

Another option is to seek criminal prosecution of the abducting parent in the country in which the parent is holding the child.  However, as with civil court efforts to recover a child, foreign courts may be more likely to favor their own citizens.  Also, in many countries abduction of one’s own child is not even a crime.  Again, a foreign attorney can help with this process.

Can You Kidnap Your Child Back?

In general, no.

Even if you have a US court order granting you sole custody of your child, a foreign court may not recognize this.  Thus, abducting your child back may put you at risk of civil and or criminal penalties in the foreign country.  You may even end up in a foreign jail.

The safer course is to attempt to have the US court order recognized by the foreign court.

Paying for Reunification

The US Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime has a fund to help parents seeking to recover their children.  This fund is administered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  To learn more, contact the NCMEC.

North Carolina Child Abduction Resources

PDF: Family Abduction – Prevention and Response

Locator Service Child Support Enforcement

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

PO Box 20800

Raleigh, NC 27619-0800


Clearinghouse North Carolina Center for Missing Persons

4706 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-4706


Compensation Program for Crime Victims Crime Victims Compensation Commission

4703 Mail Service Center

Raleigh, NC 27699-4703

1-800-826-6200 (in-state only victims’ line)/919-733-7974

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