Psychological Impact of Abduction

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One of the primary obstacles to the recovery of parentally abducted children is the general public’s perception that children are not at risk of harm if they are in the physical custody of a parent, even if the parent is an abductor. Even many law enforcement personnel view parental abduction as “civil in nature” and a private family matter that is best handled outside the realm of the criminal justice system (Girdner, 1994a).

This is a serious misperception. The experience of abduction can be emotionally traumatic to both children and left-behind parents. It is particularly damaging in cases in which force is used to carry out the abduction, the child is concealed, or the child is held for a long period of time. According to the NISMART data, parents reported that abductors used force in 14 percent of parental abductions and coercive threats or demands in 17 percent (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990). Nationally, force was used in about 50,000 cases, and more than 60,000 cases involved threats or demands (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990).

Left-Behind Parents

Greif and Hegar (1991) surveyed left-behind parents registered with a missing child organization and learned that left-behind parents experienced feelings of loss, rage, and impaired sleep. Half of these parents reported feelings of loneliness, fear, loss of appetite, or severe depression. Of this group, slightly more than 50 percent sought professional help to cope with the situation. One-fourth of the parents were treated for depression, and one-fourth were treated for anxiety and other problems.

Forehand et al. (1989) also found that parents of abducted children reported that their level of psychological disturbance was high during the period the child was missing and somewhat reduced once the child had been recovered. However, the stress and trauma of the experience did not necessarily end when the child was recovered. Many parents in this study related that their psychological distress was higher after reunification with their child than it had been prior to the abduction, possibly because of concerns about a reabduction and/or stress associated with the reunification. In a different study, Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks (1993) found that nearly three-fourths (73.1 percent) of the left-behind parents surveyed related having concerns that their child would be reabducted.3

Moreover, the abduction of a child can have a devastating effect upon the economic well-being of the left-behind parent, which in turn can increase the parent’s level of anxiety. Janvier, McCormick, and Donaldson (1990) found that the mean cost of searching for an abducted child was more than $8,000 in domestic cases and more than $27,000 in international cases. A study of international abductions found that parents spent an average of $33,500 to search for and try to recover an abducted child. More than half of parents across all income brackets reported spending as much as or more than their annual salaries in attempting to recover their children (Chiancone and Girdner, 2000).

Abducted Children

Agopian (1984) interviewed a small sample of five children to determine the impact of family abduction on their lives. He found that the degree of trauma they experienced was related to the age of the child at the time of the abduction, the treatment of the child by the abducting parent, the abduction’s duration, the child’s lifestyle during the abduction, and the support and therapy received by the child after recovery.

Few studies definitively examine how long abducted children are typically denied access to the left-behind parent. The NISMART study (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990) found that four out of five abductions (including both broad-scope and policy-focal cases) lasted less than a week. Forehand et al. (1989) showed that in most of the 17 cases they reviewed, children had been gone between 3 and 7 months. The duration of abductions described in other literature ranges from several days (Schetky and Haller, 1983) to 3 years (Terr, 1983). Agopian’s (1984) research found that the length of separation from the left-behind parent greatly influenced the emotional impact on the abducted child. Generally, children held for shorter periods (less than a few weeks) did not give up the hope of being reunited with the other parent and, as a result, did not develop an intense loyalty to the abducting parent. These children were able to view the experience as a type of “adventure.”

Victims of long-term abductions, however, fared much worse. They were often deceived by the abducting parent and frequently moved to avoid being located. This nomadic, unstable lifestyle made it difficult for children to make friends and settle into school, if they attended at all. Over time, younger children could not easily remember the left-behind parent, which had serious repercussions when they were reunited. Older children felt angry and confused by the behavior of both parents—the abductor for keeping them away from the other parent and the left-behind parent for failing to rescue them.

Terr’s (1983) study reported on a sample of 18 children seen for psychiatric evaluations following recoveries from abductions (or after being threatened with abduction and/or unsuccessfully abducted). Nearly all the children (16 of 18) suffered emotionally from the experience. Their symptoms included grief and rage toward the left-behind parent, in addition to suffering from “mental indoctrination” perpetrated by the abducting parent. Likewise, another study of a sample of 104 parental abductions drawn from National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) cases revealed that more than 50 percent of the recovered children experienced symptoms of emotional distress (including anxiety, eating problems, and nightmares) as a result of being abducted (Hatcher, Barton, and Brooks, 1992).

In addition, Senior, Gladstone, and Nurcombe (1982) reported that recovered children often suffered from uncontrollable crying and mood swings, loss of bladder/bowel control, eating and sleep disturbances, aggressive behavior, and fearfulness. Other reports document abduction trauma such as difficulty trusting other people, withdrawal, poor peer relations, regression, thumbsucking, and clinging behavior (Schetky and Haller, 1983); a distrust of authority figures and relatives and a fear of personal attachments (Agopian, 1984); and nightmares, anger and resentment, guilt, and relationship problems in adulthood (Noble and Palmer, 1984).

In a longitudinal study, Greif (1998a, 1998b) recontacted victim parents who had been surveyed in an original study conducted in 1989–91 (Greif and Hegar, 1991) to learn how their children were faring years after reunification. Of the original 371 parents surveyed in 1989, 69 were recontacted for the 1993 survey (Hegar and Greif, 1993) and 39 for the 1995 survey. In the 1993 survey, most parents (86–97 percent) reported that their children were healthy and that their behavior and school performance were satisfactory or very satisfactory. Of these children, about 80 percent had received some mental health services. Likewise, the 1995 followup did not show significant changes in children’s behavior. Their scores did not indicate that they were less adjusted than a normative group. Although, overall, children appeared to be doing quite well, a closer look at the sample showed that “those children who were doing the most poorly had been missing longer, had been reunited with their families for a shorter period of time, had no contact with the abductor, and reportedly had a worse abduction experience.” (Greif, 1998a:54). This study’s findings, while limited because of the inability to recontact all subjects, indicate that the level of trauma and the long-term impact of an abduction vary, depending on the child and family’s individual experience and situation.

This conclusion appears to be echoed in the findings of a study based on NISMART data that examined the emotional trauma to children who are victims of parental abduction and found that abductions involving children age 5 and older and those that went on for longer periods were more likely to involve mental harm. In this study (Plass, Finkelhor, and Hotaling, 1996:126), the researchers indicated that the “emotional trauma of an episode seems related to factors associated with the disruption of the routine of the child(ren), with the presence of an increased level of conflict between adults, and with the general awareness of the child(ren) as to what is happening.”



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