I googled “International parental abduction” today and I found all kinds of great definitions of what it is. Here’s an example “Whoever removes a child from the United States, or attempts to do so, or retains a child (who has been in the United States) outside the United States with intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of parental rights shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 3 years, or both.” But I didn’t find a whole lot about what you can do about is so I created an action plan.

1.      Believe it could happen to you.

If you think it might happen or have a suspicion that it’s going to happen, you and your children are probably at risk. Listen to yourself. Understand that this does happen. Believe that it could happen to you.

2.      Obtain a custody order which clarifies who has custody of the child and curtails international travel.

BEFORE an abduction has occurred, a state court judge has the ability to make rulings, issue orders and order action that can protect you and your child. For example, a state court judge can clarify who has primary custody, order that the child cannot be removed from the United States and order that the other parent turn over the child’s passport.

If you are concerned about an abduction to another country that is a signatory to the Hague Convention (read more about that here) then, you should make sure that any custody order specifically and categorically states that your child is an habitual resident of the United States. Read that again because it’s important. Get a court order that states that your child is an habitual resident of the United States.

In the event that your child is abducted and held in another country that is a signatory to the Hague Convention, a finding made prior to the abduction that the child is habitually resident in the United States will be very helpful in any later court proceedings that happen in the foreign country,

3.      Just say no!

Do not agree to allow your child to travel overseas or go on a domestic vacation with the other parent if you have any concern that he or she won’t be coming back.

4.      Stop anyone from applying for a passport without your knowledge.

The US Department of State allows a parent to put “a hold” on the issuance of a passport for your child without your knowledge. The United States requires that both parents sign permission for a passport to be issued. If the other parent is capable of abducting your child, they are also likely capable of forging your signature on passport applications and lying to the US government about your consent to the issuance of a passport. Avoid problems by notifying the US government that you do not consent to the issuance of a passport for your child.

5.      Give a very limited written permission to travel.

Prior to allowing your child to travel hire an attorney who handles international abduction cases to draw an agreement which specifies and explains why the child is a resident of the United States and clarifies the date at which your permission or consent to the overseas travel ends. Have both parties sign it. Although this document does not carry any legal wait, it will clearly establish when an abduction begins.

In many parental abduction cases, we see a vacation overseas become an extended vacation and later become “a year overseas to learn about their roots” only to eventually progress to an abduction. It is unclear to the authorities when exactly the abduction occurred. Did the abduction occur when the vacation should have ended? Did it occur when the vacation started? Why did was the child allowed to stay for an extended period of time? Having a clear statement signed by both parties in place prior to the child’s departure outlining what the expectations are as to when he or she will return will help clarify what has happened to law enforcement authorities in the event that an abduction takes place.

6. Don’t confuse the issues.

US citizenship or lack thereof is not a dispositive issue in most cases. Even if neither you nor your child have no legal status in the United States, your child could still be considered to be habitually resident here if he or she has lived here for over a year. Even if you have no legal status, you may still file an action with the State Department to have your child returned to you in the United States. Don’t allow your lack of status prevent you from advocating for your child.

Keep in mind signing a document granting the other parent permission to take your child overseas does not impact your ability to have your child returned to you.

Finally, the other parent may attempt to use your child as a bargaining chip for obtaining legal status in the United States. Any such plan would ultimately back fire because a person who has withheld custody of a US citizen child from a custodial parents is likely inadmissible to the United States- meaning that even if a US citizen files a family petition for them, the US government is unlikely to grant them residency.

7.      Contact the US Department of State and your local police.

The very day you realize that there may be a problem contact the US State Department and contact your local police department to file a missing persons report. The State Department can perform a welfare check and visit with your child to confirm that he or she is being taken care of. The State Department can also start the legal mechanisms to request the return of your child.