International parental child abductions are on the rise, according to U.S. State Department data. A new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examined ways to prevent child abductions.
Currently, a court order can be issued to prohibit the removal of a child from the United States, but it’s up to local law enforcement to enforce it. Once a child already has a passport and is at the airport, there’s little authorities can do to prevent them from leaving the country. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has an automated system that checks manifest data against missing person lists, including children on the Amber Alert system (but the child must be in imminent danger.
In addition, the State Department has a system of checks built to curb parental child abductions before the child even arrives at the airport. For example, both parents have to give consent before a child is issued a passport, and parents can sign up for the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program under which they will get an alert if a passport application is submitted for their child.
Parents can also ask the State Department to place a suspected non-U.S. citizen abductor on a Prevent Departure list.
“Prevent Departure is the only program we identified that has the potential to prevent international child abductions at the airport when it is not known that an abduction is in progress, but the potential abduction risk and the potential abductor have been identified,” the GAO report states. However, the usefulness of this program is limited because it only applies to non-U.S. citizens. “Even with these efforts in place, preventing international child abductions can be very difficult and depends on a number of factors, including the parent’s knowledge of the abduction risk and the existence of clear custody status for the child,” GAO reports.
GAO outlines two policy options to help prevent abductions. In addition to parental consent before a passport is issued, a letter of consent could be provided from the nonaccompanying parent authorizing the child to travel. “Under such a consent requirement option, airline or security staff, such as TSA employees, could check that all children traveling internationally have such parental-consent letters as a condition to boarding an international flight,” the report states.
Federal agency, airline, and nongovernmental organization stakeholders said a consent letter could be effective against spur-of-the-moment abductions, but a limitation would be the ease of producing a fake consent letter. Half of the airlines surveyed for the report said the measure wouldn’t be effective at all.