Child Finders: King County Unit tracks kids abducted by parents

A man’s habits — caught Barnard’s attention: An avid chess player — A lapsed U.S. Chess Federation membership…and it’s time to renew. "I asked the chess federation to flag his file when he re-upped. Give me a ring," Barnard said. Then he waited for the next move. It came just before Christmas 1991. The father mailed his chess club membership renewal with a Ridgeville, Calif., post office return address. Barnard learned that the man was living in Oregon but using the California address to cover his tracks. Local police checkmated the man and  returned him and the girl to King County. The father, who did not have custody, pleaded guilty to illegally taking his daughter from 1987 to 1991. He served a year in jail and then disappeared. His daughter was reunited with her mother in Seattle. The Child Find unit, run for six years by Barnard — who was joined by Detective Carolyn Parks-Giffin — focuses exclusively on abductions of children by parents. In many police departments, parental custody cases require a unique, and  sometimes awkward mix of civil custody issues and criminal law to resolve. King County is considered a pioneer in the field and a comprehensive model. "Somewhere in the world someone is getting a bang for their buck, and its the Child Find unit in King County,  Washington," said Michael Gibson of Everett, WA. based OPERATION LOOKOUT®, a citizens? group dedicated to searching for missing children. "The Child Find unit is a small yet very cohesive program. Of jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, King County ranks as, if not the best, one of the top three in the nation," Gibson said. "If any one has a healthy approach to locating and recovering children, King County has a healthy approach," said Linda Lowrance, former director of special  programs for the National Victim Center in Fort Worth, Texas and former director of Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims, Seattle, WA. Lowrance's organizations continue to heighten awareness about such cases nationwide and wants King County’s  program copied elsewhere. The Police Foundation, a law enforcement think tank based in Washington, D.C., the American Prosecutors Research Institute in Alexandria, Va., and the University of California trauma center asked Barnard to help advise people doing a study of the criminal justice system’s response to parental abductions. Last month The U.S. Justice Department asked Barnard to write an investigative guide book. King County was one of five areas in the nation to receive a $50,000 federal grant to train "recovery teams." When a child is found, police, prosecutors, private therapists, the state Attorney General’s Office, State Child Protective Service workers, judges react as a team to help children and their families cope with the emotional damage caused by the abduction. Barnard calls it "the end game," and something that sets King County apart. Linda Bridges, a Salem, Ore., therapist and former member of King County’s team, said that after years of absence, children are reunited with relatives who have become strangers. On the run with a parent, the children are  programmed — almost brainwashed — to lead a fugitive existence. To avoid leaving traceable evidence, they are taught to distrust those people who might help them, such as doctors, dentists, teachers and police. Consequently, they suffer academically, physically, socially and emotionally. In the case of the chess-playing father, Bridges said the daughter seemed OK when she was reunited with her mother before Christmas. But after the holidays, the girl thanked her family for "a great vacation with you guys" and prepared to rejoin her father. After four years on the run, the girl believed she was only visiting her mother. "We had to work on the issue that she was living there now. She was grieving the loss of her dad," Bridges said. "Overall, I hear she is doing well now." Her father, however, was typical of captured parents who illegally abduct their own children. "As soon as the abducting parent finds out the system is not working for them, they take off. So the child gets abandoned twice," Bridges said. Children eventually become angry at the abducting parent for lying to them and have problems developing trust, she said. In one of Barnard's cases, a Des Moines mother taught her children to hate and fear their father by claiming he was the Green River serial killer. In another, a 6-year-old boy was taught to duck when he saw a camera or police car, and he never knew what a family Christmas was like because it was a time of year he was trained to avoid. Barnard said the county unit finds 3 to 10 children a month, but he had no total on the number of children he has  recovered in the past six years. The county detectives are armed mainly with writs of habeas corpus and the International Hague Convention Agreement among countries to cooperate in custodial abductions. Their reach spans the globe. On a world map on the unit’s wall, there are pins signifying found children in 20 countries, including Iran, Thailand, South Africa, Russia and Egypt. Gibson said the idea of using a writ of habeas corpus — a common law order that a person be brought immediately before a court of law–to recover children is a "cool tool" developed in King County. "It’s a neat way to empower law enforcement to act swiftly, rather than wait for a prosecutor" to file criminal charges, he said. Only county sheriff’s departments can serve writs of habeas corpus. In 1989, King County judges strengthened the writs by requiring that Child Protective Services take custody of recovered children until a hearing is held, while forbidding CPS from releasing them without a court order. "People use civil law to manipulate and engineer all the time," Barnard said. "Many police agencies treat writs like eviction notices and hand over children to the parent who appears to have the proper papers. We won’t even accept a writ (from another jurisdiction) that has language of transfer. Our writ allows us to protect the children, conduct an investigation and make the parents give testimony in court." He added: "Carolyn and I don’t represent the parent, we represent the child. We’re both invested personally with kids and kid issues; that what makes us tick." Reprinted by permission of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally appeared in the July 6, 1993 edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Since that time, OPERATION LOOKOUT® served as the model site coordinator for the recovery team project which is no longer funded. Linda Bridges was involved with the King County recovery team for one year as part of an  experiment, and is now in private practice in Oregon. The Child Find Unit is not affiliated with Child Find of America.

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