1988 Finalist
Ventura County, California
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

In Ventura County, California, as in many other jurisdictions across America, a significant number of child abductions are the result of non-custodial parents taking their children in defiance of a court order. Often, the abducting parents do not consider the impact of their actions on the children who are uprooted from their homes, totally deprived of their custodial parent, and sometimes forced to live in seclusion.

The recovery of an abducted child through traditional means can cost hundreds of staff hours and thousands of taxpayer dollars. According to the California Judicial Council, in fiscal year 1986-1987, the estimated cost of conducting a Superior Court trial was $2,689 per day, not including the cost for prosecution or defense attorneys. The Judicial Council noted that each hour in Superior Court cost $470.50. The average parental child abduction case can take from one half hour to 24 hours of the court's time, thus costing taxpayers from anywhere from $235 to $11,292 per case. Add to that amount the cost of extradition, prosecution, and possible incarceration and the total cost of a single child abduction can reach staggering figures.

The Ventura County District Attorney's Office is sensitive to the cost of child abductions in terms of tax dollars and human emotions. Consequently, in 1986, the office created a Parental Child Abduction Recovery Unit to assist custodial parents whose children had been abducted by non-custodial parents, or whose children had been concealed after a legal visitation period. Members of the unit are assigned a variety of other duties such as welfare fraud, child support, and domestic violence prevention. However, once a parental abduction occurs the members of the unit come together as a team to investigate the surrounding circumstances, recover the child, offer assistance in mediating the parties differences, and when necessary prosecute the offender.

Although the unit places its highest priority on locating and returning the abducted child to its custodial parent, the unit is also concerned with the best interests of the child. It is that concern that motivates the unit to investi­gate carefully every complaint of parental child abduction so that all the facts are ascertained. Because child abduction is usually a highly emotional event that carries civil as well as criminal penalties, the Recovery Unit has developed options short of prosecution that can be employed in child abduction cases. The unit can petition the Superior Court to assist in locating the missing child or enforcing a valid custody order. The unit contacts the abducting parent and offers the parent an opportunity to return the child before the situation escalates to the point where criminal prosecution becomes necessary. The unit also works with the family law court to bring the parties together and resolve differences through mediation. In cases where one parent interferes with the visitation rights of the other party, the unit provides swift intervention to resolve the problem. In all cases, every attempt is made to resolve each case before civil or criminal action is necessary.

The single most important achievement, from an administrative viewpoint, of the Child Abduction Recovery Unit is the thousands, maybe millions, of tax dollars the program has saved by avoiding traditional investigation and prosecution procedures. On a humanistic level, the single most important achievement of the Child Abduction Recovery Unit has been its role in reuniting over 300 children with their custodial parents.