Pairing up Abduction and Alienation

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 16.35.57What’s the difference between Parental Child Abduction and Parental Child Alienation? Not a lot.

Recently looking at cults and hostage-taking, we saw how close Abduction and Alienation were. Abduction is a quick way to do the same as Alienation does slowly. Abduction is obviously wrong and illegal, so we intervene.  Alienation is not so obvious and gets away with it.

Mostly we don’t pair the two up.  Parents and Children Together (PACT is now called Action Against Abduction) have helped us to team up better. Nancy Faulkner’s (1999) UN report ‘Parental Child Abduction is Child Abuse’ is an early exception using Abuse as the common lever. Her paper covers the wide range of harms caused, and makes the link with Alienation. There has been active progress through Missing Children (and Adults) in Europe. See more below.

DSM 5 (the US diagnostic manual) has a number of ‘V-factors’ that affect a child’s mental disorders, including abuses and relationship distress. But Child Abduction is not specified by name, it seems, despite the case made by Faulkner. Perhaps that is a campaign worth pursuing. Bill Bernet instead campaigned to get PAS properly into the DSM. But without Abduction in it, he is not able to add Child Abduction to the list of five DSM categories that contain the spirit of Parental Alienation in the new DSM 5.

This blogpost is to argue that, whoever we team up with, we should get used to including both terms in the same breath. Probably the best phrase to use is: Parental Child Abduction and Alienation. See below for more on this.

AAA’s important work

Now  called Action Against Abduction (AAA), PACT’s brilliant 35 min film ‘Victims of Another War’ has three adults telling their own stories of international childhood abduction. These real stories, told in full by the victims themselves looking back, is one of the most convincing ways to show people that Parental Alienation happens, that it happens to all genders, with detail about how it is done, and of the serious long-term harm caused. And Parental Alienation is a term used in this video.

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 14.34.44

Click image for YouTube video: Victims of Another War

The documentary of Sarah / Cecilie’s own story (38 mins) has also been funded, completed and launched. This effort means we have a unique sympathetic portrayal of what happened in one family from all three points of view – the child and both parents. Sarah Cecilie ends by saying her story can’t be put neatly in a box but that “it’s mine and it’s ours … and it’s ok”.

Her long arduous personal journey helps her and us understand how she can conclude that “it’s ok” for her now – the clock cannot be turned back for her. She’s done all the years of work and more that anyone could do. She has repaired some kind of meaning and relationship with both her parents. She can now rest on her laurels after producing this great important resource for all of us. We owe her and PACT (now AAA) huge thanks and credit for their generous hard work in giving us so gracefully this richly useful story. Here’s the documentary of her experiences.

But stories like this are really really not “ok” at all. They help us see very clearly why we must urgently work to raise awareness, to spot these terrible situations, and stop and help them as early on as possible.

A famous Australian story is Jacqueline Pascarl’s.  These youtube interviews, Part 1, then Parts 2 and 3 nearby, focus on the abduction and all her subsequent campaigning. She had custody for five years, then after an outright abduction, no contact was possible for 14 years . But it is not clear how far their father made attempts or succeeded in turning the children against their absent mother. So this may be a story of Abduction only, not Alienation.

Missing children of all kinds

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 10.46.20Mainly though, AAA focuses on lost children of all kinds. This blog is not primarily about statistics. But it makes sense to first find out how many missing children are abductions by a parent before you can tell how big the Parental Child Abduction and Alienation bit of the problem is. So AAA campaigns to get better statistics about children who go missing.  Have a look at their 1 min promotional video, or their 5 minute one. Or more detail here.

It is still hard to get a quick and clear picture that isolates and defines the statistics on the kind of Parental Child Abduction that equates with Parental Child Alienation. If you can make more of the data, please do Comment below. Or if you know anyone else who has linked the three ‘A’s: Abduction, Alienation and Abuse.

The thing is that we don’t yet really know (in the UK) how many run away, are thrown out of their homes, just go permanently missing, are abducted by people who are not family, or are forcibly separated from one parent by the other … nor do we have much data about the circumstances and motivations, nor about how long these lost children and abductions last (duration being significant in relation to harm).

It’s complicated

We have more data for the USA because they have done a specific study. In 2010, there were 200,000 Child Abductions by a parent. A 1999 study showed that half (53%) ended within a week, and only 1 in 5 (21%) were for more than a month. So that’s about 40,000 per year of the more enduring kind of Parental Child Abductions in the USA.

As with assessing children resisting contact with a parent post-separation, there are complex factors and risks. Child abduction is the evident crime. But non-custodial parents who abduct after separating may have been distraught and reacting to what they felt were unacceptable restrictions. That means that, although the custodial parent has the important backing of the law, fair disputes of the legal arrangement may be on the cards anyway – especially in the early months after separation. Non-enduring abductions may be just symptomatic of this.

And the legalities may cover up the custodial parent’s attachment to their child that may be just as strong, if not Alienating even, as the abducting parent’s is. On the other hand, we see that there may be real risks to child or adult to take very seriously. And remember that those risks may be from the abducting parent OR with the custodial one … being custodial parent is often, understandably but too readily, equated with being the safe one. Keeping an open mind in this field is hard work, isn’t it?!

For more dramatic and more enduring abductions – compared to the total ‘domestic’ abductions within the same country – there is a relatively small total  of 600,000 international Child Abductions by a parent each year.  Three such cases are described in the PACT video. As a relationship breaks up, moving to another country may reflect the parent’s preferred home and family ties – but not necessarily the child’s, of course. Or it may reflect the desperate or professed escape from an abusive partner … or from the allegations and consequences of being abusive. For more detail, read Nancy Faulkner’s report.

In the news just now are (British) people desperately keen to migrate to a new country (Syria / IS). They count as international Child Abduction … a parent dramatically takes their own children without warning away from the other parent and family. The abduction is also to what the rest of the family and most of us would consider very risky parts of the world. So that makes this a double whammy of new excitement or of confusing abuse for the children, depending on whose view you take.

Key harmful factors: Enduring and emotional

It is safe to presume that for the 4 out of 5 cases where the Parental Child Abduction ends within a month, some kind of resolution follows through normal help and court proceedings. As ever, even with the extreme case of a law-breaking parent’s abduction, we can see that adversarial thinking by parents and courts opposes what the child generally needs most – 1. a properly child-focused approach (risk assessment included), and 2. even where risks may have to be managed, a relationship with both parents.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 16.39.36For the 1 in 5 abductions that are more permanent – including those to another country – then we can be more sure that something enduring, irreparable and harmful to the children is being done.  In these cases, Child Abduction may be just a short cut and simpler way to severe Child and Parental Alienation.

The PACT video and Faulkner’s paper make it very clear that Child Abduction has to be followed through by Alienation to counteract the child’s questions and reshape their feelings about their other parent. That is how the important psychological abuse is completed.

As for any abuse, the most damaging aspects are in the longer term emotional and psychological covering-up that goes with it.  Short term incidents can mostly be recovered from if they are quickly discovered and effectively handled by family and helpers. It’s the enduring processes that cause the harm.

Put the other way around, in severe Child and Parental Alienation the parent’s slower process of turning their child against the other parent for no good reason in a lasting way, can reach the point of no contact at all. The rejected parent may not even know where the children are living. At that point, there is no difference between the slow Alienation outcome and the quicker enduring Child Abduction by the parent.

Reasons to pair up

Here are some reasons for a closer pairing up of both the enduring severe kinds, and the more short-lived moderate kinds, of Child Abduction by a parent, and Child and Parental Alienation:

  • Both patterns happen in the same circumstances of separated families and the parents’  deep and overwhelmingly urgent feelings of attachment hurt, anger and revenge that often go with separation.
  • They both arise from the same conflict over the parents’ natural deeply felt attachment to their children.
  • They both fail to make the children’s actual welfare the top priority and the children’s need for a relationship if at all possible with both parents.
  • Enduring Child Abduction by a parent has to be followed through with their Alienation with less likelihood of finding or repairing a later relationship with the discarded parent.
  • Alienation may continue even when there is contact and the parent knows where the children are. But sustained Alienation may end up exactly like complete Abduction does – with no contact or knowing their whereabouts.
  • The harmful effects on children come from the same factors of enduring emotional abuse.
  • Abduction by a parent is more evidently a crime and so there is no debate about whether Abduction should be called something more sympathetic.  Unfortunately that means we don’t think more sympathetically how in non-enduring cases Abduction may just be a brief episode in the usual separation conflict resolution process. It is not as serious as the breaking of the law makes it sound. It may often be easy enough to mediate a solution. If it is short-lived, it won’t cause the same harm to children. So, for Abduction, what we know about Alienation may help us understand more clearly and work more sympathetically with what matters most in what is going on.
  • Now, severe Parental Alienation is no less harmful than any enduring Abduction is, and for precisely the same reasons. When it endures, it is also emotional abuse of the children. But, in contrast to Abduction where the negative framework is all too well accepted, the negative terms and framing for Alienation is very far from being generally accepted. Common views about Parental Alienation (originally PA Syndrome, or PAS) are that it doesn’t exist, that it is a cover-up for actual abuse, that it is a terrible and blaming concept that promotes the polarisation that we want to avoid, and that more sympathetic terms should be found that will help the fondly imagined option of parents engaging in collaborative work. Linking the word ‘abduction’ in to Alienation helps reframe all these resistances and helps more people accept that Alienation is real, harmful, and may not be easy to mediate or resolve, whatever softer name you give it.
  • So our knowledge about Abduction helps our knowledge about Alienation. And vice versa. So pairing them together is a good idea.
  • For more short-lived Abduction and less severe Alienation, we can again see them as part of the whole range of patterns with the same factors contributing, and the same agencies needing to assess and help in both cases, so the harm on the children is much less.
  • PACT’s established organisational achievements may offer more practical ideas for Alienation campaigners. Perhaps PACT can achieve more – including, as a by-product, more awareness of Alienation – by campaigning under the less contentious banner of Child Abduction? They are a more focused organisation with an unarguably good cause. They can attract better funding and staffing.
  • The main point is that, simply by adding the word ‘Abduction’, we convey a whole swathe of meaning that – without it –  takes ages to get across to the rest of the world .. if we ever do. Naming our field ‘Parental Child Abduction and Alienation’ instantly removes so many of the hurdles that prevent wider understanding of Alienation.
  • In order to keep the strong link in mind, when mentioning either topic separately, it may be a good idea to call them the similar-sounding: Parental Child Abduction, and Parental Child Alienation. If people get a bit confused about “what’s the difference?”, that may not be a bad thing.


There is a strong case to routinely bracket together ‘Parental Child Abduction and Alienation’. Through links like Karen Woodall has been building, we can work together on the statistics, the understanding and the campaigning more productively with terminology that we share. Both patterns require similar responses including risk assessment and early intervention with legal authority maybe. Both patterns cause harm to children if they are allowed to endure.

Bracketing together applies when pairing the extreme forms, i.e. enduring Parental Child Abduction, along with severe Child and Parental Alienation. And it applies too when pairing more moderate or minor forms of both. Since most Abductions (though illegal) are short-lived, they will generally be less harmful, more manageable, and not so high or enduring family conflict. That moderate picture also applies to more moderate and minor forms of Alienation. So bracketing the two together is valid for any degree of severity.

A final thought:

Does the diverse campaigning about Child Alienation have to settle for hitching lifts on other band-wagons? Does it, for example, have to climb alongside AAA and Child Abduction, work as a branch of Conflict Resolution, be found under alternative headings in the DSM, benefit silently from changes in court functioning, or edge in as an aspect of a general assessment of risk and abuse? Such a serious, counter-intuitive but definable concern should surely stand up and be counted loudly, not ride surreptitiously like this, like some illegal immigrant?

But needs must. If that’s how it has to be, then hitching rides is how we must travel. And Parental Child Abduction will take Child and Parental Alienation quite a long way.

Nick Child, Edinburgh


Nancy Faulkner (1999) Parental Child Abduction is Child Abuse. Paper presented to the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child, in Special Session, June 9, 1999 on behalf of P.A.R.E.N.T. and victims of parental child abduction.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. While I like the theory, it means we now have to prove that this is an abduction, which is a criminal act. I wonder if that works legally or not. HMMM!


  2. Thanks Joani, and several others who have responded off-line, for your helpful comments – some of which are now incorporated in the post above.

    Other esteemed opinions commented on how there may not be so much application to Parental Child Abduction of what has been written about PA, and also what might happen in a legal context if blending together Abduction and Alienation actually got serious.

    So I would note that I was floating ideas rather than seriously proposing substantial changes. And it is good to have points drawn to what might be a problem. My main interest was in the awareness raising power of adding the word ‘abduction’ as a way to have people be instantly entering PA through a door that answers so many of the resistances newcomers have to the field.

    As I said elsewhere, I can accept there may be legal problems when Abduction is equated with Alienation. But I’d say “Bring those problems on”. My point is that raising awareness of PA will be accelerated by making and exploring this word-link with an acceptably-wrong crime by a parent on their child, however much the discussion will not get close to a courtroom.



  3. Jo

    I have often pondered this question over the years. Children are ’emotionally abducted’ when PA occurs and in severe cases I feel there is a lot of similarity between some of the actions associated with PA and abduction. I suppose abduction calls up mental images and feelings of not knowing where the children are, yet often alienated parents know exactly where their children are, there is just an invisable wall around them that they cannot breach no matter how hard they try.

    We had a famous case here in Australia involving Jacquie Gillespie where her children were both abducted physically and then alienated from her. She worked tirelessly to get them back and her story was in many of Australia’s main media vehicles. She has also written a book about her ordeal. It may be helpful to look at her story (still available on web if you search her name) and see what you can draw from that.

    As for legality I will have to leave that to the family lawyers for considered comments


  4. Thanks Jo. You’ll see I’ve added the Jackie story in – you say her children were alienated but my limited viewing showed only abduction, I think. They were taken away and kept away from their mother, and very happily came back to her when that was allowed. Can you point to more descriptions of them having their minds turned against their mother?

    I have had a lot of off-line responses to this blogpost. One day, hopefully, more people will feel able to Comment directly here!

    Some authorities – like Karen Woodall as I’ve added in – are keen on associating Child Abduction and Alienation along the lines I’ve proposed.

    But some PA authorities – textbook authors, US-based, working within the US courts as expert witnesses (and like Joani above) – see the point of what I’m saying here but they do not think it is a good idea to associate abduction and alienation. I’ve said that my interest is more conceptual, putting them together for its awareness-raising potential.

    Mixing up these two categories – crime versus family or mental health pattern – a couple of PA authorities reckon is to mix up the science and to muddle the courts too.

    As I showed, one problem is simply disproportionate numbers. There are rather more numbers of cases and serious kinds of abduction than the kind of Parental Child Abduction that we are interested in because of it being close to Alienation. And, taking the full range of alienation after separation to include the almost normal kinds of torn loyalty, that is far more common than enduring abduction is.

    I have been reminded by others of a pattern – anecdotally, it is often done by fathers – where, beforehand and on the way to fully abducting (or attempted abduction) of their children, there is a period (maybe months or more) of ‘grooming’ for the abduction by sustained Alienating the children against their mother while still living together. Typically, the mother is unjustly portrayed as having some mental or personality disorder that is then used to negate her in the family and justify to the children the father’s taking them away. Of course, loads of men and women have mild or major mental health problems without it being a reason to stop them being a parent.

    That grooming process was noticeable by its absence in Jackie’s case. There was no attempt to stop her having custody of her children for several years. And then they were simply stolen.

    Do women do that ‘grooming’ before leaving with their children? The cynical view is that women don’t have to! Men themselves mirror enough of the culturally negative view of men and fathers so that before and after separating, there is no need for any extra explanation for keeping them out! What do others think of that notion?


    • Jo

      I just finished writing an incredibly pithy and entertaining reply and it has disappeared. Well wasn’t that pity and interesting. As to grooming, well mother’s certainly groom their children when they alienate them from their fathers. If we are talking abduction, I am fairly certain they would have to do the same. If it is a true alienation case then the children have loving, healthy relationships with parents and if the abduction is an extension of the alienation it follows the grooming would have to be conducted.

      If Mums are kidnapping children to get away from violence/drug use etc…maybe there is no need for grooming because the other parent has already done so through their actions. And of course the reverse is true too. Dads may be running from the same things and protecting their children via the same method.

      But I have no grounding in the kidnapping of siblings/children, so PLEASE do not quote me on this!!!!

      So Nick, when do you put the coffee pot on?


    • Offline, a reader writes about my cynical view (that women don’t have to do much denigrating of men and fathers because that is already widely in place):

      “I would agree. I have a client – being treated for an eating disorder, and the staff introduced the family to me saying in a quick sentence that “Dad’s not around and hasn’t been for a long time”. I have since found this to be PA. But it was as though there needed to be no more explanation than that he was ‘one of those – a Dad with no commitment, abandoning the woman to bring up the children…’”

      I suggest that the failure to know, consider or ask about PA in the assessment and formulation of a disorder (an eating disorder in this case), is a major professional failure, given that we know that PA can be a causal factor in all kinds of disorder.


  5. PS to this (maybe needing to be corrected) account of Jackie’s children … The question raised is this:

    If a child is abducted and prevented from contact with their other once loved safe parent, BUT that child is NOT actually alienated against the absent parent – either no attempt is made to turn them against the parent, or else they are not persuaded by efforts to turn against the absent parent – then how much harm is the child suffering, that is, compared to a child who has suffered being more fully brain-washed against the other parent?

    Of course the abducted but not alienated child will be stressed, but they will presumably know (if they are, as they were in Jackie’s story) that they have had wrong done to them. They are a kind of hostage, but Stockholm Syndrome has not happened. Even if they also love their abducting parent too, they may know he or she has done wrong. Plus, in Jackie’s case, two siblings had the possible support of each other, protecting against alienation if attempted, and helping support and sustain their memory of their mother, and their hopes to return to contact or stay with her.

    So this is to open up the question of what factors more precisely cause the abuse and harm that makes Child Parental Alienation so serious … The PACT video shows so clearly that the harm is done not so much by the abduction but by the alienation that followed.


  6. Jo

    As for your comment on ’emotional abduction’ I think that is an apt description. A few of us in Australia use the phrase ’emotional murder’ as well.


  7. Thanks Jo. ‘Emotional abduction’ and ’emotional murder’ go with the ideas of ‘the invented death‘ and ‘living losses‘.


  8. One Nation Pauline Hanson Please Explain , Senator Rod Culleton had promised to us, they will reform the Family Law in Australia. Well , one of the major sins of family courts and the Government lawyers is the lack of “fair trial before Australian courts & tribunals ( CSA for instance ). It is also lack of expeditiousness in trials before those family courts and tribunals.

    Bad Family Law, arrogance & ignorance of the public servants etc.

    I and my son were badly treated by Australian Government ( DFAT) , by its lawyers ( State Solicitors and Legal Aid ) and by the Australian Courts, all of which had my son alienated for the past 7 years from the rest of his family, from his two sisters and from myself – his father – for no legitimate reason.

    We were denied a fair trial before the High Court of Australia. The evidence was not presented to the courts by the WA State Solicitors. The court transcripts were tempered with by the court. The Australian Senate was lied to and misleaded by the Chief Judge of Australian Family Court in an official Senate inquiry.

    I had no choice left , but to file a complaint to the international tribunal – the UN Human Rights Tribunal in Geneva.
    After three years of being alienated from my son by the administrative actions of DFAT and then by the WA Central Authority, the UN had ruled that my son’s human rights and my own human rights were grossly violated by Australian Government.

    Recently, the Government had denied any wrong doing and it is not going to implement the UN Decision, as it should because it is obliged to , by the Covenant it had signed.

    Ironically – it is all to defend the Delegate( minister) of DFAT, who unlawfully and arbitrarily removed my child from his birth home and away from his father and family in 2010.
    The Government’s decisions had no base and no legitimate reasons, if the utmost importance of the Family Law was to be securing the best interest of the child, nor in upholding the basic human rights and the Rights of the Child.

    In UN Human Rights Decision No.CCPR 2779/2013 (Zoltowski v Australia) – one of the four Covenant articles violated by Australian Government is the violation of art.14(1) (Fair Trial before the court and tribunals). In my son’s case, as well as in hundreds of thousands of custody cases in Australia, it means a failure in securing child’s contact & access with the left behind (non custodial) parent.
    The Australian Gov. has violated child’s & his father’s rights in relation to human rights, as it was worded by the UN in Geneva: ” RIGHTS OF EQUALITY BEFORE COURTS AND TRIBUNALS AND RIGHTS TO THE FAIR TRIAL, AND THE RIGHT TO ITS EXPEDITIOUSNESS” – this are the exact words of the UN Committee, who ruled against Australian Government. The ruling is being a form of estoppels against Australian Government on international arena. The Australian Gov however, in its recent arrogant submission to Geneva’s HR Committee denied being wrong and gagged the UN from publishing Australia’s stance.

    If this UN Decision was honored & implemented by Australian Government – it would bring a positive change to all the devastated families and abused by current laws children. It includes the current Family Law, the ruthless CSA and CPD.

    Simply, the Australian Government is not intending to reform the Family Law, because the FL in its current shape & form brings enormous amounts of annual revenue, pays the costs of the courts, costs of Gov.lawyers and the costs of running the family courts. This, together with unjust CSA laws props up Australia’s international credit rating.

    These seem to be more important to the Government, than the happiness of our children and the happiness of Australian families.

    Thank your for your time.


  9. Jim chance

    Hi Nick. I think if you made a Venn diagram of parental alienation and parental abduction there would be a lot of overlap. One thing we see here in the States is abduction in response to court intercession in PA. For example a court limits an alienator to supervised visitation and then there is an abduction. We have a confederation of people here called Children of the Underground. They provide support to parental abductors and lobby for legal changes that would make “legal abduction” aka parental alienation easy. One of their main efforts is making Parental Alienation inadmissible.


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