As a society, we have preconceived ideas about child abductions. We tend to think that most child abductions involve a stranger taking a child and that these are usually crimes of opportunity. The truth is that most child abductions are actually parental kidnappings.
Child Find of America reports that 78% of missing children reports involve the noncustodial parent failing to properly follow the proper custody arrangement. In 82% of these cases, the ultimate goal of the parent who abducted the child was to trigger a change in custody. In 66% of the cases, the father was the noncustodial parent who took the child without the custodial parent’s permission. 21% of the cases that are considered parental kidnapping didn’t necessarily involve the biological parent but were actually perpetrated by another relative, such as a grandparent.
While parental kidnappings are incredibly scary, the silver lining is that they usually end with the child remaining safe and quickly being restored to the custodial parent.
It’s worth noting, that while such cases are rare, there have been instances when the custodial parent was actually charged with parental kidnapping. These types of cases are most common when the custodial parent suddenly takes the child out of state for a prolonged period without alerting the family court or the custodial know about the situation in advance. Custodial parental kidnappings can also happen when the custodial parent refuses to honor the arrangements that have been made for the noncustodial parent to spend time with their children.
California’s Penal Code 277 was created specifically to deal with the issue of parental kidnapping. When you read through the law, you’ll discover that it’s noticeably longer than many of California’s other penal codes, in large part because California’s lawmakers wanted to make sure they had covered every possible contingency.
One of the interesting things about Penal Code 277 is that it is one of California’s wobbler laws. That means that a parental kidnapping can be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony.
There are several things the prosecutor will look at before determining if your particular case is a felony or misdemeanor. Factors that influence the prosecutor’s decision include:
- If the child was in danger of being harmed or was actually harmed during the kidnapping
- If at any point during the ordeal the child was threatened
- If anyone else, such as the other parent, was physically harmed or threatened during the abduction
- If the child was taken out of state or out of the country and how long before they were returned to the state/country
- If the incident resulted in an interruption of the child’s education
- How old the child was at the time
- How long before the child was returned
- Did the kidnapping parent try to conceal their child’s identity to make it more difficult to find the child?
- If the kidnapper meant to disrupt the custody arrangement or if they thought they were genuinely acting in the child’s best interest
If the prosecutor decides that the facts of the case don’t justify felony charges and handle the case as a misdemeanor, the potential consequences include:
- One year in a county jail
- Up to a $1,000 fine
If the abducting parent is convicted of felony parental kidnapping, the consequences include:
- Up to three years in a state prison
- Up to a $10,000 fine
The parental kidnapping will cause the court to look at the child’s custody and visitation situation and will often result in the noncustodial parent losing any non-supervised visitation rights to their children.