The Parental Alienator who Abducts Children

Ludwig.F. Lowenstein Ph.D

Southern England Psychological Services



Parental alienation is usually carried out without physically abducting children to another city or country. In the extreme an alienator will remove the child to a distant place in order to control the alienation totally. The offender often ascribes abduction to preventing a child from being abused by the non custodial parent, or some other negative reason, in order to seek to exonerate the abductor. This paper considers: 1) the causes for abduction; 2) the personality of the abductor; 3) the short and long term impact on the children who are abducted; 4) abduction and its association with alienation against the non abducting parent; and 5) the prevention of abductions and the treatment of the children who have suffered abduction.

The Parental Alienator who Abducts Children

What follows is based on a number of cases in which the current psychologist has been involved and seeking to rectify be deprogramming children who have been “abducted” and alienated by a parent. The situation is relatively rare but it does exist and it indicates the extremes that some parents will go to eliminate the possibility of contact between one parent and their close relationship with the children.

The case to be discussed involved the UK Government in seeking to return three children from abroad by extraditing them from another country where they had been taken. The treatment of their condition is still occurring. Such a process of treatment is by no means easy and the very return of children frequently involves political aspects at the highest level.

The author will be concerned with the victim of abductions and the abductor when this occurs within the context of the family during separation or divorce. Here one parent removes a child without the agreement of the other parent, hence failing to provide access or contact for the non abducting parent. It provides the abductor with total control of children and total opportunity of alienating the children from the non abducting parent.

In a United States study in 1999 53% of children abducted by one parent were returned within one week while 21% were not returned after more than a month (Nismart National Family Abduction Report, October 2002).. International child abduction occurs when a parent or a relative leaves a country and then alienates a child against the remaining parent. The frequency of international abductions are as previously stated small when compared with the domestic abductions within the same country. The Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Abductions is an international Human Rights body which aims to recover children who have been taken to another country and to return them to the country of origin.

This may require cross border mediation which involves national centres for missing and exploited children. Some countries do not have an extradition policy of this kind including Japan, Egypt and Iran and other countries. Some parents rely on private parties to recover children, sometimes by a considerable degree of subterfuge. Two thirds of international abduction cases are mothers who tend to allege domestic violence and other offences by a former partner as their reason for abducting. The abduction of children by one parent is an extreme form of preventing contact for the remaining parent with his/her children. It is also an extreme form or parental alienation since it removes one parent from being able to influence and establish a relationship with his/her children.

In a review of the more recent research we will consider the following:

1. The causes or risk factors leading to the abduction of a child and suffering alienation by the abductor.
2. The personality and other factors of the abductor.
3. The short and long term impact on children who have been abducted.
4. Abductions associated with alienation of children.
5. The prevention and treatment of children who have been abducted and alienated.

1. The causes or risk factors leading to the abduction of a child and suffering alienation by the abductor.

Abductions of children to other areas of the world occur as a result of custody and access disputes. Cole & Bradford (1992) discuss 20 cases of child abduction during divorce custody and access disputes. The 20 cases involved 20 parents and 37 children and were examined after the children had been returned to the custodial parent. The characteristics of the abduction were compared with those of a control group of 20 custodial disputes not involving abduction. Compared to control parents, abducting parents were more likely to be male, born outside America with previous psychiatric contact and with previous criminal charges. The personality of abductors will be described in a separate section.

2. The personality and other factors of the abductor.

Little is known about parent’s motivation for abducting their children except they wish to keep their children from having contact with the other parent. In depth interviews were conducted with 17 parents (9 fathers and 8 mothers) to learn about why they became abductors. Abductors ranged in age from 20-50 years and had abducted 26 children who were between the ages of 1-13. A number of psychological tests were used including the Beck Depression Inventory, the Trait Anger Scale and an Attachment Scale. The reason for the abduction included unsatisfactory contact with court related professionals, revenge, and fear for the child’s safety (Greif & Hegar, 1994). The post return of children was best explained by characteristics of the child and family before the abduction occurred. Such abductions were frequently due to domestic violence perpetrated by one or both parents (Hegar & Greif, 1993a).

Abductions are frequently carried out due to inter-racial or cross cultural problems after marriage. A national survey of 371 parents whose children were abducted by the other parent revealed an over representation of inter-racial and cross cultural marriages among the families involved in the abduction. Inter-racial and inter-ethnic couples made up 12.7% of the sample, but they only made up 8.4% of the American population as a whole (Hegar & Greif, 1994).

A study which compared parents in 50 abducting families with 57 family litigation custody cases found the reason to be as follows: 1) a heightened concern about very young children being exposed to neglectful, endangering or criminal environments by the other parent; 2) unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse; 3) heightened distrust of and less respect for law and authority; 4) a reluctance to seek help from the courts. Abducting families were also predominantly socially and economically disadvantaged, they were less likely to be married to one another and had lower incomes, and were more poorly educated. They also disproportionately came from minority racial and ethnic groups (Johnston & Girdner et al., 1999). These factors may be considered risk factors in whether a child is or is not abducted by one of the parents.

Mention has already been made that most abductors are males born outside the United States with a previous psychiatric history (Cole & Bradford, 1992). Psychopathology of the abductor has also been found to be the case by Ellis (2000). Such individuals appeared to suffer from cognitive distortions and other personality disorders. They also appeared to be lacking in empathy and engage in defensiveness and projection of blame. They are likely to have rigid thinking styles and interpersonal skill deficits. They also tended to be self-orientated rather than child-orientated.

A study by Greif (1995) found such individuals to be suffering from a form of ego defence and Greif felt they had the justification for carrying out illegal acts such as abduction. According to Greif (1995) the abductor constructs a new and more arguably justifiable reason for the behaviour. The abductor is not organically impaired and does not seem to suffer from psychosis. They also do not feel remorse for what they do and tend to blame others and most especially the parent whom they are alienating for all the problems that exist.

Greif (1999) studied a sample of 26 parents (60 males and 10 females) whose children were abducted by the other parent. Out of 371 parents many had cross-cultural marriages, and according to the research they were better educated, and more likely to have been accused of child abuse. The searching parents described the abductor as being very much involved with the children prior to the abduction and less likely to have been accused of abuse.

In-depth interviews that were conducted with 17 parents (9 fathers and 8 mothers), found that the abductors ranged in age from 20-50 years and the children abducted were 1-13 years of age (Greif & Hegar, 1994).

Contradicting a previous study, abductors were described as less educated and less likely to be employed than the victims of abduction i.e the other parent. Most abductions were concerned with a single child. Mothers whose children were kidnapped or abducted by the father described more violence in their marriage, more fault-related reasons for divorce, and more force used in the abduction than did fathers whose children were kidnapped by mothers (Hegar & Greif, 1991).

3. The short and long term impact on children who have been abducted.

Agopian (1984) addressed the psychological impact of kidnapping or abduction by a non custodial parent of 2 boys and 3 girls aged 6-11 years of age. They were abducted but eventually returned into lawful custody. The children’s reactions to the kidnapping depended on their age at the time of the abduction, the type of treatment received by the offender, the length of time that the child was in the offender’s control, and the offender’s lifestyle. Sometimes children who have been abducted viewed the experience almost as an adventure, experiencing only benign trauma. If they were abducted for over 6 months, generally they displayed severe psychological traumas and profound social disorders. It must be said that parental abduction usually was detrimental for the young victims who eventually had no recollection of the custodial or the other parent who was left behind. Older individuals showed resentment towards both parents feeling contempt for the offender and resentment towards the custodial parent for not rescuing them sooner.

Similar results were obtained by Greif (1998) who noted especially a long term impact of parental abduction on children. The research is based on longitudinal survey data from a sample of 39 searching parents, and examines the change in children 4 and 6 years following the children’s return. Greif (2000), in a later article stated that little was as yet known about the long term impact on children who have been abducted by a parent. Children who had been kidnapped by one of the parents and hidden for an average of 2.7 years had been followed for a decade, and also through contact with a parent who received them. The study reported that the children who were now in their late teens and young adults, were on the whole progressing satisfactorily into young adulthood and their relationship with their parents were non-problematic. A significant minority of children however, continued to suffer emotionally and had more physical ailments than their peers.

There appeared to be a lack of reliable information about the well-being of many of the children who had been abducted. Many of these findings must be considered with caution, since many studies are based on parental impressions. Greif & Hegar, (1992) felt that some parents who recovered their children may have a significant emotional investment in believing that the children are adapting well to their reinstated living arrangements.

Hatcher & Barton et al., (2000) sought to help the mental health providers and legal professionals to better understand the impact of parental abductions on children and parents. The authors considered such abduction to be a serious social problem. The recovery of the abducted child was important to contribute to the increased self esteem of the deprived parent. This was discovered by studying 371 parents who experienced child loss due to abductions by the other parent (Hegar & Orme et al., 1993).

4. Abductions associated with alienation of children.

Some parents in their desperate desire to alienate children against an absent parent abducted children to live in another country. It is for this reason the Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction passed a relevant law. The law stated “That if a country was a party to the convention on human rights custody had already been decided in the country of origin after divorce or separation. A parent taking a child to another country did not authorize that new country to retry the custody. Instead that country had to return the child to the country of habitual residence (Levy, 2006).

Children who are abducted, not only lose the targeted parent but his/her extended family (Rand & Rand, 2006). These authors describe extremely touching reconciliations of adults who were formerly children who had been abducted. Sometimes however, unfortunately, there is no meeting or reconciliation. This fact is delineated by Sobal (2006). Such children have not only been deprived of a once loving parent and in-laws but also deprived of the parent’s country. During this time they are programmed and brainwashed to obliterate the now absent parent by “implanting of information that may be directly at variance with what the PAS child has previously believed about and experienced with the alienated parent” (Gardner, 2000)

5. The prevention and treatment of children who have been abducted and alienated.

Sobal (2006) describes the pathological material (lies, and exaggerations) that have been imposed on alienated children when abducted. The more prolonged the indoctrination, the more deeply ingrained becomes the indoctrination and the more difficult it is to counteract its effects. The effects are the total rejection of the now absent parent.
The goal of the therapist must be to de-programme the child/children and produce attitudes and positive feelings once again about the alienated parent. “The treatment is analogous to the “detoxification”, or processing in which poisons are removed from the body so that healthy functioning can resume”. The child’s own capacity for critical thinking must be encouraged. Some children cannot be reached and reprogrammed, but those are comparatively small in number.

Such children become permanent victims of the parental alienation syndrome (Gardner, 2000). These children feel no guilt, much as the alienator, regarding their antagonism towards the alienated parent. They even refuse letters, presents, and other forms of communication from the alienated parent. They reiterate or echo the denigration espoused by the alienator, in some cases until the very end of their lives (Sobal, 2006). Their mind has been totally and irreversibly brainwashed.

Johnston & Girdner (1998) described preventative intervention such as counseling, conflict resolution and legal strategies aimed at settling custody and access disputes. Intensive counseling of 10-40 sessions brought about some changes after 9 months in that such children. Adolescents were more co-operative and expressed less disagreement towards their formerly absent parent. Inter-agency collaboration can also be effective in reducing the risk of abductions (Barton, 1997).

Eventually visits between the child and the former abductor, whom one assumes is paying child support, can occur, although there is some fear that another abduction may take place. A large proportion of parents reported satisfaction with the children’s adjustment after mental health care had been provided (Hegar & Greif, 1993b). Mediation was considered the way forward to deal with child abduction either to prevent it or deal with it subsequently (Forehand & Long et al., 1989).

The role of the judiciary is very important in supporting the efforts being made by mental health professionals. Children are often resilient and can come to terms with the traumatic effects of abduction, providing there is ultimately the opportunity to return to the alienated parent and re-establish that relationship which had been lost.


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