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Children's Rights

Kidnapping And Abduction

Kidnapping is the aggravated (for ransom or injury) false imprisonment of a person. In colonial days kidnapping was just a misdemeanor punishable by fine or some other public punishment. There was no special category when the victim was a child. In addition kidnapping was not considered a crime unless the abduction was violent or involved international travel. The newly formed states passed kidnapping laws following founding of the United States, but most states continued to consider it a misdemeanor crime. As a result children of the wealthy were frequently targeted by kidnappers seeking high ransoms. Often the children were murdered even when the ransom was paid. Kidnappers would commonly take their victims to another state to be outside the jurisdictional territory of the state in which the abductions occurred.

The kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 brought a public outcry for stiffer kidnapping penalties. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The kidnapping and murder of the infant son of famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) in 1932 brought a public outcry for stiffer kidnapping penalties. Congress passed the Lindbergh Law making kidnapping a federal criminal offense when the kidnapper takes his victim across the state borders.

The kidnapping of children for ransom declined through the latter half of the twentieth century, replaced by kidnapping cases involving bitter child custody cases and by sex offenders. To address parental kidnappings in violation of custody rights, Congress passed first the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act followed by the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1994. Most states also include parental kidnapping in their general kidnapping laws.

Abductions by sex offenders drew considerable attention in the 1990s and afterwards. Because sex offenders have a very high risk of repeating crimes, the State of Washington passed the first law in the nation in 1990 that authorized criminal justice officials to notify communities when a dangerous sex offender is released in their area.

The following years witnessed several highly publicized cases of children being abducted and murdered. As a result a series of laws were passed to stiffen the penalties for these crimes against children. The brutal rape and murder of seven year-old Megan Kanka in 1994 led to a public outcry for a national community notification system like the one Washington had established four years earlier. On May 17, 1996, President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) signed Megan's Law. The law required states to register offenders convicted of sex crimes against children and make personal information on registered sex offenders available to the public.

After nine-year-old Amber Hagerman of Arlington, Texas, was abducted and brutally murdered in January 1996, more legislative remedies were pursued to prosecute criminals victimizing children and to attempt to prevent such crimes. The most significant came in 2003 when Congress passed the Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today Act, known as the PROTECT Act. The act made child abuse killings first-degree murders subject to the death penalty. It also strengthened penalties for kidnapping and eliminated the statute of limitations for child abduction and sex crimes. Previously once the child victim reached the age of twenty-five, the offender could no longer be criminally prosecuted. The minimum penalty for kidnapping by a non-family member rose to twenty years. In addition a person convicted in a first offense of child sexual exploitation and child pornography faced penalties from fifteen to thirty years in prison. A "two strikes" rule in the act requires life imprisonment for offenders who commit two serious sexual abuse offenses against a child. The act also prohibits any obscene materials depicting children and provides harsher penalties than those penalties provided in general obscenity laws.

A key feature of the PROTECT Act was creation of the AMBER Alert program. The program established a national communications network for alerting the public immediately after an abduction of a youth under eighteen years of age has been reported. The child must be considered in danger of harm or death. The alerts bring in the assistance of local public in spotting the missing child, their abductor, or the vehicle reportedly used in the abduction.

During the late 1990s concern also arose over the abduction of children for the purposes of selling them into international sex trade networks. To give law enforcement more tools to address this growing issue of human trafficking, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawChildren's Rights - Protection Of Children, Childcare, Child Labor, Kidnapping And Abduction, Forms Of Child Abuse