It's far more common than you might think for one parent to take the children and leave without the other parent's consent. According to the Department of Justice, in 2002 (the most recent statistics available) more than 200,000 children were kidnapped by a family member.
Kidnapping isn't always a sudden thing, where you wake up and find that the other parent has spirited the kids away. It can also happen when a parent has permission to travel with the children but fails to bring them back. It's important to be vigilant if you believe there's any risk of abduction, and you may have particular reason to worry if your children's other parent has family in another country and wants to take the children to visit. If that's the case, you should also learn about the Hague Convention and international kidnapping.
If your spouse takes your children outside of the area that your custody agreement covers without your permission, contact your local police or sheriff right away. Also call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-843-5678. The organization has a 24-hour hotline to report a missing child and receive assistance with the search; other services include reunification services once a child is found, and referrals to experienced professionals who can help with the emotional fallout of a child abduction.
If you think your spouse may try to leave the country with the kids in the near future—or if it's already happened—contact the federal Office of Children's Issues at 888-407-4747. The agency provides prevention tips and information, and assists with international abduction cases by assigning a case officer who helps you deal with your local law enforcement agencies and with the search for your child. You should also contact your lawyer right away, so you can get accurate information about your custody rights and advice on how to proceed.
If you suspect that your children's other parent is likely to remove them to another location, take steps to try to prevent abduction and to prepare yourself for the possibility:
If you have strong suspicions that the other parent may take the kids in the very near future, you could hire someone (there are private investigators with this specialty) to follow along on visits. But if the person you hire interferes with the visitation and there's no actual threat, it will be you who's in trouble. If you do decide the risk is worth it, find someone who has experience in dealing with potential parental abduction cases.
Excerpted from Nolo's Essential Guide to Child Custody and Support, by Emily Doskow.