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In most places, parents are presumed to have equal rights when it comes to the upbringing and care of their children. Parents who are separated or divorced usually have parenting plans or custody arrangements that reflect the joint nature of the task, while parents who are married or are otherwise raising their family together must share in the rights equally. When one parent leaves a marriage with a child, or violates a custody arrangement to assume sole custody of a child, he or she is often accused of parental abduction. Parental abduction, simply phrased, is when a parent abducts or kidnaps a child, removing that child from contact with the remaining parent and family of origin. Most of the time, parental abduction involves relocation, name changes, and new identities in order to avoid discovery by family and law enforcement.
Parental abduction involves much more than a child custody dispute or a residency disagreement. Like abduction in any other sense, parental abduction is cloaked in mystery: in an abduction scenario, the child simply disappears. He or she no longer attends school as usual, and no longer participates in any of the events or activities that used to mark his or her schedule. In most cases, the object of the abduction is to remove the child to a new life in a new location, where the abducting parent can be the sole parent without threat of interference from the other.
Abduction by parent can happen for a number of reasons. A parent who is the victim of domestic violence may flee with a child in order to escape an abusive situation, for instance. Parental abduction is also very common in custody disputes, often leading up to or immediately following a divorce. A parent who is unhappy with the prospect of sharing parenting with an ex-spouse may elect instead to take the child and run. While a parent may be able to justify child theft, the law frowns upon it in almost every instance, and most jurisdictions define parental abduction as a crime.
The degree to which law enforcement will get involved in alleged or suspected parental abduction is often a matter of local law. When parents are married or have a seemingly mutual child custody arrangement, police in most places are reticent to immediately suspect child abduction, even if a child and parent seem to have simply gone missing. Some places have waiting periods of days or weeks, even in contentious relationships, before law enforcement will become involved in searching for potentially abducted children. In many cases, by the time police have gotten involved, the abducting parent has already left the state, province, or country with the child, which can make apprehension difficult.
To avoid detection and prosecution, abducting parents often take careful steps to cover their tracks. They frequently change the appearance of both themselves and the child, and usually also begin going by assumed names. Most parents who abduct their children live somewhat transient lives, never staying in one place for an extended period of time. When caught, abducting parents are frequently charged with kidnapping, fraud, child abuse, and violation of court-ordered custody, if applicable. The penalty is frequently imprisonment, and permanent loss of custody or child visitation privileges.