What is International Parental Child Abduction?

International Parental Child Abduction (IPCA) is the removal or retention of a child outside their country of habitual residence in breach of another parent or guardian's custody rights (U.S. State Department 2022). Parental child abduction is linked to life-long trauma, emotional and relational difficulties among survivors (Faulkner 1999). Increasing global mobility, technological advances, and differing beliefs, values, and cultural norms concerning children’s welfare worsen the global problem of International Parental Child Abduction.

Scope of the Problem

Since 1994, it is estimated by the U.S. government that more than 30,000 American children have been illegally abducted abroad by one of their parents (1). While rates of parental child abductions from the United States to foreign countries saw a relative decline in the past decade, the U.S. State Department still estimates that annually between 600-800 American children are abducted from the United States to another nation (O’Regan 2020). Some advocacy groups estimate higher numbers, and attribute the discrepancy to parents who do not report or are fearful of reporting, inconsistent ways in which reported abductions to the federal government are counted, and some perceptions of active efforts to discourage reporting (2).

Impacts of International Parental Child Abduction

Family separation is a known risk factor for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), and abducted children who are separated from parents may suffer mental health problems such as substance use disorders, attachment disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and chronic health problems, among other deleterious effects. The US Supreme Court, for example, has emphasized that “[a]n abduction can have devastating consequences for a child” and that “[s]ome child psychologists believe that the trauma children suffer from these abductions is one of the worst forms of child abuse (Abbott v. Abbott 2010).” Parents seeking their children’s return also experience emotional and financial difficulties as they are bereaved of their abducted children, forced to interact in unfamiliar ways with two or more governments, and often compelled to participate in foreign lawsuits as they seek reunification.

Federal Response

The U.S. State Department is the designated “U.S. Central Authority” for ICPA prevention and resolution. The State Department shares parts of its mandate with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection, which is tasked with IPCA prevention and interdiction. It also shares jurisdiction with the U.S. Department of Justice, which enforces the criminality of IPCA. At least eight federal laws and two uniform state laws govern IPCA prevention, response and resolution. Yet, discretionary enforcement and lack of awareness about these laws and their applicability in IPCA cases have long resulted in less than ideal outcomes for families (3). In response to fragmented federal, state and local actions to address IPCA and consistently low return and reunification rates, the U.S. Congress has “consistently advocated for a more coherent and transparent public policy” to improve federal response (O’Regan 2020).

For more than four decades, the phenomenon of International Parental Child Abduction has attracted broad bipartisan concern from US lawmakers, often after they were asked for assistance from constituents. Since 1979, for example, there have been 49 hearings in the US Congress on IPCA issues, with the most recent one having been before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on September 29, 2022. Still, 40 years of federal attention to this issue have yet to sufficiently ‘move the needle’ toward more robust and consistent federal responses.

International Response

At the international level, the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Parental Child Abduction (hereafter, the Hague Convention) is a civil remedy by which some parents can seek the return of abducted children. In 1988, the US ratified the Hague Convention, which was codified by the adoption of the International Child Abduction Remedies Act (ICARA). Today, the treaty has 101 states parties and provides a legal framework for the return of abducted American children. However, its utility as an international treaty is strongly contested. Not all nations have acceded to the Hague Convention, and some are not likely to do so given varying interpretations of abductions, differing beliefs, norms, cultures and attitudes toward parenting and children’s rights, and potential conflicts with their legal systems (O’Regan 2020). Emon and Khaliq (2021), for example, discussed inherent conflicts in the Hague Convention’s western values orientation and Islamic law. Importantly, wide judicial discretion and varying applications of the Hague Convention in abduction cases limits its utility.

Publication Perception

Finally, a persistent misunderstanding of the issue exists, in which IPCA is often conflated with custodial conflicts instead of being recognized for its criminality and lifelong traumatic effects on children, families and communities. In this complex environment, advocates are increasingly aligning with civil society organizations, coalitions and activist parents to press for more consistent and effective responses from governments at home and abroad. ICAPRO aspires to connect research and practice to policies and outcomes for more effective response to this global problem.


  1. The Coalition to End International Child Abduction.
  2. Ibid.
  3. O’Regan, K. 2020. International Parental Child Abduction (IPCA): Foreign Policy Responses and Implications. Congressional Research Service. https://crsreports.congress.gov



Dr. Noelle Hunter

Clinical Assistant Professor, Political Science Director, ICAPRO

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