Child abduction is the unauthorised removal or retention of a minor from a parent or anyone with legal responsibility for the child.
Child abduction can be committed by parents or other family members; by people known but not related to the victim, such as neighbours, friends and acquaintances; and by strangers.
The criminal offence of child abduction is defined in the provisions of the Child Abduction Act, 1984. This applies, in different forms, in each of the four countries of the UK.
The Act makes it a criminal offence for anyone “connected with” a child under the age of 16 to “take or send” that child out of the UK without the appropriate consent. “Connected with” includes parents, guardians or a person with a residence order or custody of the child. “Appropriate consent” is the consent of the mother, the father (if he has parental responsibility), the guardian or anyone with a residence order, parental responsibility or the leave (permission) of the court.
Non-parental child abduction
The Child Abduction Act also makes it a criminal offence for “other persons” to “take or detain” a child under the age of 16 without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. “Other persons” are people other than the child’s parent, guardian or a person with parental responsibility for the child. The majority of non-parental child abductions recorded by police are perpetrated by strangers or by people exploiting young people¹.
The offence of kidnapping exists in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and is defined at common law as “the taking or carrying away of one person by another, by force or fraud, without the consent of the person taken or carried away and without lawful excuse. It must involve an attack on or loss of that person’s liberty” ². An offence of kidnapping can be recorded for both child and adult victims.
Scottish offences of abduction and child stealing
In Scotland, there exists another common law offence of abduction: “the carrying off or confining of a person forcibly and without lawful authority” ³. Abduction can be recorded for child and adult victims. In addition, a common law offence of child stealing (‘plagium’) can be committed against children below the age of puberty (under 12 years for girls and under 14 years for boys) when the abductor has no parental responsibility for the child³.
More information on the law and child abduction is available in our briefing paper: Child Abduction: The Legislative Jigsaw.
Not all children who are abducted perceive themselves to have been victimised. For example, some children who are taken by a parent do not identify either themselves as a victim of abduction or the parent as an abductor. Likewise, some young people may willingly go with, or to, a person they regard to be their boyfriend, despite parents and/or police perceiving the relationship to be exploitative. In other cases, individuals may be abducted but more readily identify themselves as victims of a sex offence, robbery, or assault etc.
Police-recorded offences of child abduction
Each year in the UK police forces record more than 500 offences of child abduction. These include completed abductions (where a child is actually taken) and attempted abductions. However, many more incidents go unreported to the police [link to briefing paper on Surveys] and some may not be recorded. See Police-recorded crime briefing [link].
In 2014/15 police forces in England and Wales recorded 822 offences of child abduction⁴. This compares to 565 offences the previous year; an increase of 45%. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) recorded 43 offences of child abduction, compared to 40 in 2013/14⁵. PACT’s research indicates that non-parental child abduction has been increasing at a faster rate than parental abductions⁶.
In addition, police in England and Wales recorded 2,198 kidnappings in 2014/15⁴, an increase of 27% on the previous year. The Police Service of Northern Ireland recorded 45 kidnappings in 2014/15⁵, a decrease of 18%. It is estimated that approximately one-fifth of these offences involve victims under the age of 18³.
In 2014/15 Police Scotland recorded 234 offences of abduction (involving both child and adult victims)7 . In addition, Police Scotland recorded one offence of child stealing/plagium in 2013/147 .
Who abducts children?
Over four-fifths of completed abductions recorded by the police involve a perpetrator known to the child. Less than one-fifth are committed by a stranger¹.
Approximately one-quarter of all police-recorded offences (including attempted abductions) involve parental abduction⁶. Many more cases of international parental child abduction go unreported to the police.
Nearly 60 per cent of completed abductions recorded by police are perpetrated by someone known, but not related to, the child. These include acquaintances, neighbours, boyfriends and ex-partners of parents¹. Many cases involve exploitation or grooming.
Nearly one-fifth of completed abductions recorded by police are perpetrated by a stranger (someone who was not known to, or recognised by, the victim). That’s nearly 50 a year. However, there are roughly four times as many attempted abductions by a stranger recorded by police¹.
¹ Newiss, G. and Traynor, M. (2013) Taken: A study of child abduction in the UK. London: Parents and Abducted Children Together and Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
² The Law Commission (2011) Simplification of Criminal Law: Kidnapping. Consultation Paper No. 200. London: The Law Commission.
³ Scottish Law Commission (1987) Child Abduction. Cm64. Edinburgh: Scottish Law Commission.
⁴ Office for National Statistics (2015a) Crime in England and Wales, Year Ending March 2015. Office for National Statistics.
⁵ Police Service of Northern Ireland (2015) Trends in Police Recorded Crime in Northern Ireland 1998/99 to 2014/15. Belfast: Police Service Northern Ireland.
⁶ Newiss, G. and Collie, C. (2015) Police-recorded child abduction and kidnapping 2012/13 to 2013/14 England, Wales and Northern Ireland. London: Parents and Abducted Children Together.
7 Scottish Government (2015) correspondence.