What is Parental Kidnapping? Understanding the laws about custodial interference and what to do if your spouse violates custody orders

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Although a custody battle can be one of the most complicated, hotly contested, and emotional aspects of a divorce, in the end, even in high-conflict situations, most custody agreements proceed without incident. 

But there are times when the nightmare scenario occurs-  an angry, disgruntled, or unstable parent runs away with the child or hides them from the other parent in violation of court orders.

Parental kidnapping, also called custodial interference, is a serious crime with severe consequences. 

Custodial interference isn’t always as dramatic as abducting a child in the middle of the night and fleeing across state or international lines—it can take numerous forms. Some states clearly distinguish between custodial interference and parental kidnapping, and some use the terms interchangeably. In California, custodial interference is an overarching term that includes parental kidnapping and other types and degrees of custody violation.

Custodial interference occurs when either parent disrupts the other parent’s court-ordered custody and visitation rights which may include:

  • Preventing the child from going to scheduled visits; and/or interfering with drop-off or pick-up; refusing or failing to return the child after a scheduled visit.
  • Restricting the other parent’s rightful access, time, and communication with the child— for example, monitoring and limiting phone calls, texts, online exchanges, and so forth.
  • Attempting to alienate the other parent by speaking negatively about them to the child, coaching the child to request a new custody arrangement, etc.
  • Child theft: knowingly and maliciously taking a minor away from the legal custodian to conceal the child. 

Custody orders are binding, and only the court can approve changes to your custody arrangement. Depending on the circumstances and details of a specific case, interfering with custody or visitation may be charged as a misdemeanor or felony. In either case, you can be held in contempt of court; a misdemeanor carries a punishment of up to $1000 in fines and a year in prison, while a felony will cost you up to $10,000 and four years of jail time.

It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the applicable laws in your area and your custody agreement and to understand your rights and responsibilities—especially before any move-away or relocation, irrespective of distance.

What should you do if your ex is interfering with your custody rights or has taken away or concealed your child from you in violation of your court order?

  • Immediately report the incident to law enforcement and the court
  • File a motion for contempt of court
  • Ask the court for supervised visitation
  • Request a revision of custody orders and/or make-up time

Suppose you have reason to believe there is a substantial risk that your former spouse will try to kidnap your child (previous custody violations, suspicious plans that would make it easier such as plane tickets, passports, etc., a history of abuse, no significant work or relationship ties here/strong ties elsewhere, etc.). In that case, a court may consider that evidence and take measures to prevent abduction (restricting relocation rights, ordering supervised visits, prohibiting passport renewal for the child, etc.)

There is an essential exception to custodial interference laws—when a parent believes their child is in genuine danger of physical or emotional harm if left with the other parent. A parent who has fled with their child for safety reasons in the case of domestic abuse has a window to file a “good faith report” with the Child Abduction Unit of the District Attorney’s office, as well as filing proper documentation with the superior court clerk. 

Child custody is a complex area of the law; custodial interference issues are severe and urgent. If you are involved in a custody dispute involving disruption of rights, kidnapping, or fleeing due to abuse—it is critical to work with an experienced lawyer. The skillful and compassionate family law attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate your unique case.

by Debra Schoenberg


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