Freeman Study of Children Who Were Abducted

May 26, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

A few days ago, I would have considered the incident in this article as no big deal (Chicago Tribune, 5/25/16). It’s about a mother, Michalene Melges, who abducted her three sons from their Wisconsin home and took them to Savannah, Georgia. Instead of using her own car to carry out her plan, she rented a van that was later turned in to a rental agency in Texas by someone other than Melges. That strongly suggests she had a co-conspirator involved in her crime. Thanks to the FBI and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the four were discovered after two weeks and Melges was arrested. The boys’ father is on his way to Georgia to be reunited with them.

So, all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. Just two days ago I read a 2014 study of child abduction by Australian professor Marilyn Freeman together with the Centre for Family Law, Policy and Practice. It’s opened my eyes to much of what abducted kids suffer.

First, let me be clear. Freeman’s study can’t be used to extrapolate to the population generally or even to the population of abducted kids. Her sample is only 33 people and they weren’t randomly selected. So whatever the data regarding those kids, we can’t draw many conclusions about abducted kids generally.

So why do I find it so important? Freeman wanted to learn about the long-term consequences of child abduction to the kids. So she interviewed adults who had been abducted as children. Their stories are hair-raising. Never again will I think of kids like Michalene Melges’ and consider their experience unimportant or not traumatic for them.

Freeman’s study says a lot that I can’t detail in a single post, but for now, I’ll skim the surface and go into more detail in a later piece. What I want to get to today is the astonishing mental/emotional trauma suffered by abducted kids long after their abduction. Based on earlier work by Dr. Nancy Faulkner and others, I’ve always described child abduction as abuse, and it is. I just didn’t truly understand what I was saying.

But first, a few facts about Freeman’s study. The adults interviewed had been abducted as children between 10 and 53 years prior to the interview. Now, the trend in child abductions is that, formerly, most abductions were committed by fathers, but now mothers are the prime abductors of kids. Data from 2008 show that parental abductions were split about 70%/30% between mothers and fathers. But the adults interviewed by Freeman were mostly from a previous time when dads abducted more, so 19 of her interviewees had been taken by their fathers.

The time they spent away from their left-behind parents ranged from a few days to 42 years, and it’s that “few days” that made me pay attention to the Melges case.

Fifteen of Freeman’s cohort were abducted within their country of residence and 19 were taken abroad. Four of them were 0 – 2 years old when they were taken, 24 were 2 – 8 and five were 9 – 11. (One interviewee was the non-abducted sibling of an abducted child.)

Fifty-three percent of the interviewees were in hiding with their abductors. That meant changing their names, moving frequently, lying to school authorities and being unable to make friends. Forty-seven percent of the interviewees said they experienced domestic violence during their abduction and some reported sexual abuse by friends of their abductor.

So what were the consequences these adults reported about their abductions?

Very significant effects (see section 3.1 for the definition of these effect terms) were reported by 25 interviewees (73.53%).114 This finding reveals an apparently high level of mental health problems in this abduction research sample.115

For example:

One female interviewee who was abducted at 6 years of age and reunified after another 6–7 years, reported having a psychotic breakdown in her mid 20’s. She was admitted to a hospital for 4 months. She explained that she felt that she needed “to become whole”. She has been in therapy for the last 18 months. She says that this is “a lifelong thing”…

One female interviewee who was under 3 years old at the time of the abduction, and was reunified after 6 years, had “a total breakdown” for which she was hospitalised. She then had further therapy afterwards…

One female interviewee who was abducted at 5 years of age and was never reunified stated that she has been to both psychiatrists and psychologists. She has been told that she is “in a personal holocaust”. She said that she is “missing the building blocks” and has to pretend they are there in order to “have friendships.. these normal moments”.

One male interviewee who was abducted at 11 years of age and reunified 20 years later said that he has had bouts of depression for which he was prescribed medication and that “there is only a skeleton left” of him…

One female interviewee who was under 2 years of age when abducted and reunified after 13 years said that, as a teenager, she was “a nightmare”. She became increasingly depressed, and kept thinking about suicide. She attempted suicide several times.

One female interviewee who was abducted at 8 years of age and reunified after 5 years said that she became anorexic as a teenager and wanted to kill herself. She said her abductor took away everything she knew, everything she wanted and loved, and that she never got it back…

A female interviewee who was under 2 years of age at the time of abduction and reunified after 21 years, described consulting therapists solidly for the past 20 years. She reported “being in meltdown” and “suicidal” and had suffered from bulimia. She described “the ball of rage in the pit of my stomach”…

A female interviewee abducted at 4 years of age who was reunified when she was 18 reported having been suicidally depressed with a bad eating disorder. She had therapy and was hospitalised for several months. She said that the effect reaches everywhere – parenting, relationships and career. Any life change brings it all up again. She stated that the abduction has “taken an incredible toll”.

A female interviewee abducted at 8 years of age who was reunified after 3–4 months, described taking an overdose as a teenager because she didn’t want to be alive anymore. She has seen therapists, been on anti-depressant medication, and has been told that she has post-traumatic stress disorder.

In short, child abduction isn’t just child abuse, it’s adult abuse too. The consequences can last a lifetime. The abducted person can suffer terribly and experience debilitating mental illness. Interestingly, Freeman briefly addresses the question of whether, if an abductor is fleeing abuse at home (and not many are) that abuse is better or worse than the abuse of the abduction. My guess is that, except for the most serious forms of abuse, it’s better to deal with abuse at home than to be thrust into the abyss that is parental child abduction.

But whatever the case, Freeman seems intent on researching that question. I hope she does.

More on her study later.




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