The Parental Kidnaping Prevention Act of 1980 told the Justice Department to involve itself more in the business of finding parents who kidnap their own children (usually after losing a custody fight in a messy divorce). This is not something Justice or the FBI is particularly excited about doing, as Attorney General William French Smith's recent report to Congress makes clear.

"Our careful review of this area has also served to reaffirm our conclusion . . . that we restrict federal involvement to those parental kidnapings where serious criminal law enforcement interests appear to exist," Smith wrote.

Between Dec. 28, 1980, and Sept. 30, Smith said, the FBI received 576 parental kidnaping complaints nationwide. Of that number, only 97 were formal requests for FBI assistance from state law enforcement agencies, one of the FBI criteria for taking a case. Of those, Smith said, FBI involvement was authorized in 31 cases and refused in 54, with decisions pending in the other 12. The results: 15 children were located and 13 parents were arrested, five by the FBI and eight by local authorities.

Guidelines for FBI involvement "require independent credible information of abuse or neglect [by the kidnaping parent] that is of a continuing nature," Smith's report says. As examples, it cites the cases of a kidnaping parent who previously had been arrested for child abuse and a parent who had previously involved his son in child pornography.