Aug. 19, 2002 -- Despite what seems to have been a rash of children abducted by strangers this summer, there aren't any more than normal, and vastly greater numbers of children are kidnapped by their own parents and relatives — and those cases rarely generate headlines.
Stranger abductions make up the smallest percentage of children reported missing every year. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children believes that stranger abductions are decreasing overall and projects that there will be approximately 100 of these kind of cases by the end of this year.
According to statistics cited by the NCMEC, most missing children are abducted by relatives or parents: a soon-to-be released report, the Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, referred to as NISMART-2, finds that 203,900 kids were abducted in 1999 by family members or parents. Approximately, 58,200 were "non-family" abductions — only 115 were defined as the frightening kidnappings by strangers.
Parental kidnappings do not spark media attention — and the sense of urgency from law enforcement officials — that the disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapping and slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion and this month's abduction and rescue of two California teenagers attracted.
Experts say there is a perception among the public and law enforcement that children kidnapped by their parents are not endangered. After all, figures from the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention show that only 4 percent of children abducted by their parents are physically harmed.
"I think there's a perception with people that, 'Oh, since they're with a parent no harm will come to the child,'" said Nancy Hammer, director of the International Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "And also since it involves two parents and family, it seems to be a messy situation. It doesn't seem as black and white as if a child was abducted by a stranger. It's taken a while, but progress has been made in making these abductions crimes, felonies. But they can lack the sense of urgency in the public and law enforcement reserved for other cases."
A Very Lucky Recovery
Tracy and Robert Morse had to fight those perceptions when their children were abducted. In December 1996, three of Robert Morse's children from a previous marriage were kidnapped by their biological, non-custodial mother when they got off the bus at school.
"There's this perception in the public and among law enforcement, that when children are abducted by their parents that they're safe, and that just isn't true," said Tracy Morse, co-founder of American Parental Abductions Resource & Support Organization — APART for short. "These children are separated from everything they know and love, they are forced to live a life of a fugitive, constantly on the run, separated from their identity and their schooling interrupted and often told their left behind parents don't care about them.
"When my husband's children were kidnapped by his ex-wife, she pulled up at school and made a big scene at school and everything," Morse continued. "People who saw her take the children, they just thought, 'Oh, it's a domestic thing. We shouldn't interfere.'"
Tracy and Robert Morse spent more than more than two years trying to find their children and only got a break in their search when the children's mother remarried and sparked the suspicion of her new in-laws and their relatives. One of her new husband's relatives went on the Web site for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, saw the faces of the three children and contacted NCMEC officials. The children were recovered and reunited with the Morses in March 1999.
"The kids were a mess, in really bad shape," said Tracy Morse. "But we were very, very lucky."
Following their children's recovery, the Morses founded APART to give parents a resource to both prepare themselves and their children for family abductions and give them guidance as to what to do during those situations. "Left Behind" parents spent so much time trying to figure out what to do when their children are abducted by an ex-spouse or family member, valuable time is wasted. Abductor parents easily flee amid the confusion and shock.
A Mother’s Desperate 28-Year Quest
One woman who wishes she had the Morses' good luck and perhaps could have benefited from APART when her son was abducted is Marianne Malky.
Malky, founder of Voice for the Children, a Florida-based organization that helps locate and recover missing children, has been searching for her son David for 28 years. Malky said David, then 7 years old, was taken by his non-custodial father, Stephan Shipenberg, during a court-ordered weekend visit in 1974. Shipenberg, she said, called her and told her that she would never see David again.
Malky, who lived in New Jersey at the time, went to Shipenberg's job at American Airlines in New York City and was told he had quit. She found out he had moved from his Manhattan apartment and ultimately tracked him and David at a new address as they drove away in a station wagon. As she pounded on the car window, that was the last time she saw her son.
Since then, Malky has had little progress in finding David, and she said she has received little help from law enforcement. She was so anxious to get her son back and track him down that she did not file a missing person's report in New Jersey when he was first abducted. When she tried to file one year later, she was told too much time had passed.
"There isn't any finding your kids unless you do everything yourself. You basically have to do everything," Malky said. "No one [from law enforcement] really wants to get involved. 'It's too complicated,' they say. 'It's a domestic problem.' You're told you need custody papers or you need to go to an attorney to get custodial papers, but what you need are [private] investigators. Custody papers don't find missing children; investigators do."
At one time, she said, she received a tip that David was attending grammar school under another last name "Kaplan" and contacted officials. However, by the time she made it to the school, administrators had contacted Shipenberg and he had retrieved David. She has learned that her son attended middle school and high school in Oyster Bay, N.Y., but she says the schools refused to give her access to his records. She also learned that he was in the Navy, but officials would not release any records because of privacy laws.
"In the United States, it's very difficult to find them [abducted children and abductor parents] because they change their name," Malky said. "It's very difficult if you don't know what their name is."
Frustration of ‘Left Behind’ Parents
Malky said she has received tips and help from people who believe they have spotted Shipenberg and David over the years. However, she said her quest has cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars and frustrated — experiences commonly shared "left behind" parents.
"You end up broke and physically and emotionally drained," Malky said. "But I was — am still — determined."
And lack of resources is an obstacle for parents in family abduction cases. Not everyone has the money to hire private investigators and communication firms to print fliers for their missing children. Often, as time passes and money dwindles, parents are forced to accept that they may never see their children again.
"Unless you really keep the pressure on police, really harass them, you won't get the updates that you want on your case, and it'll fall on the bottom of the pile," said Morse. "You have to turn to private investigators but not everyone has those kind of resources."
Malky said she never saw David's abduction coming. His father never made any previous threats, and they had civil discussions about the custody and visitation arrangements.
"I didn't see this coming. Usually they tell you that they're going to take your child. I was never told," said Malky. "But I tell you, all these cases are premeditated. They know where they're going to go, where they're going to hide."
• Family Abduction Safeguards and Warning Signs? Read Below
AMBER Needed for Parental Abductions
New wireless child safety tracking devices have been developed that enable parents to trace the whereabouts of their children. The lightweight devices integrate digital technology from the Department of Defense's Global Positioning System satellites to pinpoint children's locations, and many child advocates believe they could prevent child abductions or at least help recover kidnapped children.
Still, more needs to be done. Experts say parental abduction victims need a program similar to the AMBER alert system, which was credited with helping law enforcement officials to rescue two California teenagers approximately 12 hours after they were abducted at gunpoint, and save an infant abducted from an Abilene, Texas, parking lot last week. Parental abductees have little, if any chance, of being considered for the AMBER alert system because the children's lives are not considered endangered in most cases.
"The AMBER alert system is great, and they need to develop one for family abductions," said Morse.
More may also need to be done in the courts when parents are trying to reach an agreement on visitation and custodial rights. Sometimes the early signs of a family abduction manifest during legal negotiations.
"The first instance or signs that people may abduct their children are likely seen in court," said Hammer. "Maybe if more court officials are trained to pay more attention to certain risk factors, they can identify which child may be at risk and take action and fully inform parents what they face, what will happen if they do abduct their child."
Child advocates also argue that there should be more severe punishment for parental child abductors — or at least they should be prosecuted to the law's fullest extent. Stephen Fagan pleaded guilty in 1999 to kidnapping his two daughters, telling them their mother was dead and living under an assumed name for 20 years. He avoided jail time by agreeing to a deal that gave him five years' probation, a $100,000 fine and 2,000 hours of community service.
Barry and Judith Smiley kidnapped a baby after an attempted adoption of the infant was ruled invalid, and they lived for 22 years under an assumed name, raising the boy they called Matthew Propp as their own son. They avoided trial and possibly 25 years by agreeing to plead guilty to second-degree kidnapping in June. Barry Smiley received a two-to-six-year sentence while his wife Judith was sentenced to a six-month prison term and five years' probation.
These plea deals, child advocates argue, make would-be parental abductors believe that they would not be risking anything if they kidnapped their children.
White House Weighing In
Many left-behind parents have complained that custody orders have not been readily enforceable when they locate a missing child. Often, they have had to hire two attorneys — one for each state — if the abducting parent has traveled to another state. As the filings go through the court system, the abducting parent may flee the state again without a trace, leaving the wronged parent back where they started, not knowing the whereabouts of a missing child.
According to the Department of Justice, California is the only state that requires district attorneys to take whatever civil remedies and criminal prosecutorial measures necessary to locate and recover children abducted by family members and to enforce child custody orders. In July 1997, the National Council of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws approved the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which contains a similar mandate. As of February 2001, 21 states had enacted UCCJEA, and it had been introduced to the legislatures in 10 other states.
Some change may begin with attention from the White House. President Bush has announced the White House would hold a first-ever conference on missing, exploited and runaway children in September. Held in conjunction with the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention, the conference will focus on the prevention of child victimization, improving law enforcement policies for handling crimes against children, stranger abductions, and domestic and international parental kidnapping, among other topics.
‘Never an End’
Despite the time that has passed, and the fact that her son is now approaching his mid-30s, Marianne Malky is willing to do whatever it takes to find him. She said she plans to file lawsuits against the schools she suspects David has attended to force them to release his records.
If Malky finds her son, there is a possibility that he will not accept her. It happened to Barbara Kurth, the ex-wife of Stephen Fagan, when authorities tracked him down and prosecuted him for kidnapping. Even after learning that that their mother was not dead and that their father had lied to them for 20 years, Kurth's daughters stayed by Fagan's side. Afterwards, Fagan said he abducted the daughters because Kurth was neglecting them and abused alcohol, a claim she denied.
Still, knowing this, Malky remains determined.
"I know he has been told that I don't care about him, that I don't love him, but I'm not giving up," Malky said. "Hopefully, I will win. … The feeling that I and many parents of children who have been abducted is not unlike those whose children have been killed, except that we never have an end. There's never an end until you find your child."