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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Principles of Aaron's Law (2005 Oregon Child Abduction Law)

Aaron’s Law is premised on the finding by the 2003 Oregon Senate President’s Interim Task Force on Parental and Family Abductions that child abduction is highly abusive to the child, and that this abuse occurs regardless of who abducts the child: “(Child abduction)…is extremely detrimental to the emotional and mental well being of the children, and at times may even put the life of the child in danger.”

Victims of child abduction by family members who appeared before the Task Force and who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee testified unanimously that the injuries caused by abduction were in fact severe and permanent.

Stated simply, child abduction—by any person—is child abuse.

Aaron’s Law (Senate Bill 1041 [2005]) seeks to address the problem in several ways:

1. By empowering the Court to appoint a Guardian ad Litem and a qualified mental health therapist to represent the interests of the child at the very outset of the case.

2. By requiring the parties to the case to attend counseling directed at informing the parties of the harm their conduct is inflicting on the children.

3. By encouraging the professional development of the bar, the courts and others through training and the dissemination of information regarding the issue of child abduction, particularly those abductions in which family members participate.

4. By authorizing the Court to award damages to the parties suffering harm.

5. By extending the statute of limitations and placing the statute in the context of the crime. Abduction is a continuing crime, not an event that occurred on a single day.

6. By providing to victims an avenue that is separate from the criminal system. In most cases, incarcerating a parent adds to the ongoing trauma suffered by the child victims.

7. By providing a means to fast-track an abduction case, shortening the time that a child is abducted.

Aaron’s Law has been in effect since October 2005, and we recognize several areas where the law could be amended and improved.

We also recognize that many participants in the system, including law enforcement, the courts and the bar, have not yet reached a level of awareness regarding child abduction where family members are involved that either affords the opportunity for Aaron’s Law to work effectively or that adequately addresses the suffering of the child victims.

A key problem with current law lies in determining when an abduction reaches the point where ORS Custodial Interference statutes apply. ORS requires an act “with intent to hold the other person (the victim) permanently or for a protracted period.”

There is no agreement on what “protracted” means. In a recent case handled by the Portland Police Bureau, the detective in charge was unsure that the definition of “protracted” had been reached although the children had been missing (along with their non-custodial mother) for nearly eight months.

Also, while Aaron’s Law authorizes the court to appoint legal and mental health advocates for the child victims, there is at present no cadre of such professionals who are knowledgeable about and/or experienced in the recovery of child abduction victims.

Amendments currently being drafted:

1. Define “protracted” for purposes of Aaron’s Law (SB1041) as 72 hours from the time the child or children have been reported missing to law enforcement.

2. Authorizes agency (Commission on Children and Families) to apply for grants for the purposes of training and deploying certain guardians ad litem and child mental health professionals as child recovery teams.

3. Directs the Court to select guardians ad litem and mental health professionals from this cadre.

Related Issues:

1. Local law enforcement agencies do not routinely or effectively provide reports of child abduction involving family members to the OSP Missing Children’s Clearinghouse. This needs to change.

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