Is It Possible to Steal Your Own Child? Yes, And It's Against the Law!
The Law on Child-Stealing in California
Have you ever been afraid that your child will be kidnapped by a stranger? Do you know that it’s much more common for a child to be taken away by a parent or another family member? Some people think that you can't steal something that’s already yours, but when it comes to children that's not true. Children are not like a piece of property, it hurts them when they are uprooted and kept from other people they care about.
It’s a crime for a parent, relative, or any other person to take away, hide, or keep a child from the other parent or a person who has rights to the child. It is a crime to take away, hide or keep a child from a child’s foster parent or other legal guardian.
Child-stealing is a serious (felony) crime even when it is a family member who steals the child, which is called criminal custodial interference. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, and others with rights to the child who are convicted of stealing a child can be sent to prison for up to three years and fined up to $10,000.
Fathers and mothers who have lost or never claimed their legal rights as parents, as well as other relatives, stepparents, boyfriends, and girlfriends without rights to the child also can be charged with child-stealing. Or, they might be charged with kidnapping. Anyone convicted of kidnapping can be sent to prison for up to eight years.
Some people think they can avoid California law by taking their child to another state or country, but the district attorney's office will send investigators anywhere to bring them back, just like they do in other crimes.
How to Protect Against Child–Stealing and Avoid Being Accused of Stealing Your Child.
Get a child custody order from the court and follow it. A custody order is a legal paper with a decision by a judge saying when the children are supposed to be with each parent (physical custody and visitation) and who makes the decisions about the children’s health, education, and wellbeing (legal custody). Your order should also say if your child can be taken out of town or out of state for vacations, for example.
To get a child custody order from the court, contact an attorney or legal clinic for assistance in filling a petition, which is a request for custody from the court. You also can get help in working out the arrangements of a custody order with the other parent by going to a mediator at Family Court Services in your county. A mediator is a person who works with both parents to help them come up with their own agreement that the judge can make into a court order. Private mediators are also available in many areas.
Give a copy of the child custody order to your child’s school and keep an extra certified copy of the order at home. "Certified" means that the copy has a signature or seal on it from the court to show that it is a true official copy. Certified copies usually cost extra, but are very important to have.
If the other parent lives in a different county or state, send a certified copy of the order to the clerk of the court there, so that the order will be kept in their file.
Do not prevent the other parent from seeing your child. It is best if you have times you have agreed to, or that are spelled out in a court order. If not, make sure that there are some times when you each see the child. Otherwise, the other parent can say that you are interfering with their right by taking, hiding, or keeping the child from them. This can happen even if there is no court order.
If you have your child for visitation or you have custody part of the time, return the child to the other parent on time. If you are late, you could be accused of the crime of child-stealing.
If you are an unwed parent and you keep the child from the other parent, you also could be accused of child–stealing. If you are an unwed father who has not legally claimed paternity you could be charged with kidnapping if you take the child. If you are an unwed mother, you still need to get a child custody order from the court, even if the child has always been with you.
If already have a custody order, but you want to move to another area or state, or make some other change, first go back to court and have your order changed. If moving with the child means that the other parent's contact with the child is changed, and you did not have the court order changed, you could be accused of child–stealing.
What to do when you feel you must protect yourself or your child from the other parent
If you or your child is not safe where you live, go to a safe place (friends, family, or a shelter). Find out from a shelter or family violence hotline how to stay safe.
If you keep your child away from the other parent, because you feel that parent is harmful to the child or to you, then you should call or visit the local district attorney’s office right away. Tell them where the child and you are and why you took or kept the child from the other parent. Then follow their advice. If you do not call the district attorney’s office, if you do not follow up on their advice, or if you do not really have a good reason for taking or keeping the child, you could face charges of child–stealing.
Make sure that family and friends know that they are doing
something wrong if they help steal a child or help a parent
who has stolen a child.
Sometimes family and friends think they are helping by keeping a child away from the other parent or by helping a parent run away and hide with a child. They often don't know that by helping a parent steal a child, lending money, keeping the location secret, or other activities, they too can end up in prison or face a large fine. Or they can be sued by the left-behind parent for damages and have to pay them money. Family and friends need to know that their well-meaning actions can get them into trouble.
What should you do if your child is stolen by another parent or relative?
- Call your local law enforcement agency (police or sheriff's department) and make a crime report. Ask the law enforcement officer to enter your child as missing in the NCIC, the nationwide computer crime file.
- Call or visit the local district attorney’s office right away to begin a child abduction investigation. Give the district attorney a description and recent photo of the child along with addresses and telephone numbers of anyone whom the child–stealer might go to or call for help.
- If you have a child custody order, or visitation order, give a certified copy of the most recent order to the law enforcement agency. If there is no court order, contact a lawyer or legal clinic right away for help in getting a custody order from the court.
- Call missing children’s organizations for assistance in locating your child. (See below for two examples.)
If you have questions about child–stealing, call your local district attorney’s office. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), at (800) 843-5678, or Find The Children at (888) 477-6721
Produced as part of a project of the ABA Center on Children and the Law and the Center for the Family in Transition under OJJDP grant 92–MC–CX–0007 from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice. This brochure does not necessarily represent official views of the U.S. Department of Justice or the American Bar Association.