Michiah Yehudah’s 6-year-old daughter has been missing for two years now. Does it make it any easier for the long-time educator knowing that the mother of his child has her? Just the opposite: He’s terrified for her safety.
Family abduction is a crime, yet the New York father, who has sole custody of his daughter, is facing the same skepticism that too many other searching parents still encounter today: What’s the big deal? The child is with a parent. Oh, it’s just a custody thing.
There are many misconceptions surrounding family abduction, the biggest one being that the child is safe because they’re with a parent. In fact, these children face numerous risks and harm, and it’s now a crime in all 50 states, and federally.
Family abductions tend to occur at transition points, whether it’s the beginning or end of the summer or around holidays, said Leemie Kahng-Sofer, who oversees family abductions as director of case management for NCMEC. They often occur when the court-ordered exchanges are supposed to take place, but the abducting parent decides they’re not going to return the child, or children, and go into hiding, she said. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) wants to raise awareness at a time when there is renewed interest in family abduction cases with the recent premiere of FX's new five-part series, “Children of the Underground.”
In Yehudah’s case, he went to pick up his daughter at the scheduled time on June 23, 2020 in New York and was stunned to learn that the mother of their child had moved out of her home with his daughter, Kushiyah.
He later received an email from Kushiyah’s mother, Daphne Chandler, also known as Amani Ani, saying they were out of town for a family emergency, then she ignored court orders to return the child. Yehudah, a higher-ed administrator, hasn’t seen his daughter in more than two years now and has no idea where she is.
“My heart goes out to people who’ve had to go through this longer than me,” said Yehudah, who gained emergency sole custody of his daughter Kushiyah, now 8, shortly after she went missing. “It takes a toll. It’s a horrific ordeal. Your child is not a priority.”
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Because of the emotionally charged nature of family abductions, they can be some of the most violent missing child cases. They trigger more than half of AMBER Alerts, which are reserved for those abducted children facing the most imminent danger.
“The fact the child is with their parent does not negate the risks and endangerments they face, including neglect, emotional, physical and even sexual abuse,” said Kahng-Sofer. “From what we’ve seen, there’s often violence associated with family abduction AMBER Alerts, including homicides. We’ve also seen cases in which the abducting parent is with someone who poses an extreme risk to the child, like a boyfriend or companion who is a registered sex offender. Sadly, we’ve even seen cases in which the abducting parent takes the child and commits murder-suicide."
There’ve also been extreme cases in which the children are literally kept hidden, including a boy who was abducted and located two years after he was reported missing, Kahng-Sofer said. He was found hidden with his mother in a tiny sealed, specially built secret room no taller than a washing machine at his grandmother’s house. She’s also seen cases in which children with medical conditions are neglected and denied access to medical care or the medication they need at the hands of the abducting parent.
Yehudah hates that his daughter, a happy child who loves to crack jokes, has had to “live like this for two years, moving around on the run” and is separated from the relatives she loves in New York, the only family she knew. He worries about the psychological impact.
“I can’t even imagine how scared she is,” he said of his daughter. “I totally believe my daughter is in danger.”
Despite persistent misconceptions, child safety advocates, including NCMEC, stress the importance of working with the courts and law-enforcement, as Yehudah is doing. He remains hopeful that law enforcement will help him find his child.
It’s important to highlight these issues, especially now with school starting just around the corner and with the recent premiere of “Children of the Underground.” The documentary, now streaming on Hulu, tells the story of an Atlanta woman, Faye Yager, and her efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s to help parents and their children go into hiding amidst abuse allegations. Yager's organization and her secretive network were highly controversial - some applauded her actions while others believed what she was doing was tantamount to kidnapping and vigilantism.
“People may have good intentions, but when you kidnap children, you’re interfering with the legal process and that’s not okay,” said Angeline Hartmann, NCMEC’s director of communications in a recent interview with A&E True Crime about the series. “Kidnapped children often aren’t enrolled in school, don’t get adequate nutrition and housing and don’t receive medical or dental care,” she said. “Whether it’s Faye Yager or any other organization, they simply cannot break the law. When you’re living a life on the run, when you’re going underground, nothing good comes out of that.”
If you have any information about a family abduction, please contact law enforcement or NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)