When parents abduct children

Kirk Makin of The Globe and Mail notes that people who abduct their own children, for the purpose of denying access to the other parent, face relatively few consequences:

The abduction of children by one of their parents is one of the few offences to combine grave consequences for victims with lenient treatment for offenders.

In some cases, parental abductors emerge from hiding when their child is fully grown, give themselves up and walk away with minimal, if any, jail time.

Some in the family law community worry that lenient treatment of parental abductors makes a mockery of judicial custody orders as well as the suffering of a parent whose child has been stolen away for months or years. Nor, do the penalties reflect a loss the child may not even realize she has suffered, said Phil Epstein, a veteran family lawyer.

“Criminal penalties have been dramatically light,” Mr. Epstein said. “The family law bar would generally say that the sentences do not reflect the gravity of the offence and the rupture that deprives the child of a healthy relationship with one parent.”


Joseph Di Luca, a Toronto criminal lawyer, said an abductor can create a reasonable doubt about whether she was genuinely abused. Allegations of abuse are easy to make and difficult to disprove, he said. “It’s a real challenge to go back years later and sort this out,” Mr. Di Luca said. “Courts have to be cognizant of the dangers of relying on allegations of abuse in those circumstances.”

Another unusual aspect of parental abduction cases is that a parent deprived of a child may fear alienating the child even more by demanding harsh treatment for the other parent. Sometimes, the deprived parent even tries to win his way into the child’s heart by asking that the abductor not be punished at all.

An Ontario judge familiar with the offence said it is very difficult to discern motives and gauge the damage done to an abducted child. “A judge has to be prepared, where necessary, to impose a sentence despite what the child says,” said the judge, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But imposing a sentence when the abducted child is weeping in your presence is not an easy thing to do.”

The judge said that trial judges have their hands tied by precedent. If they depart from established sentencing ranges, they risk being overturned on appeal. If a judge hopes to make a harsh sentence stick, the judge said, it is best to link it to the contempt that parental abductors show for court-issued custody orders.

Update: in Britain, the Lord Chief Justice is calling for stricter sentences for parents who abduct their children.

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