It’s those weaknesses and inconsistencies that drive some parents to seek a high-stakes shortcut: snatching their children back. There is no official tally of the number of companies purporting to offer “child recovery” services, or of the number of parents who use them. But interviews with child advocacy groups, law-enforcement officials and the companies themselves suggest that the industry is small: a dozen or so agencies active over the last decade, usually executing only a handful of operations a year.
For everyone involved, the industry is fraught with dangers, from scams and scuffles to botched border crossings and international arrests, according to nearly 50 interviews with parents, psychologists, family lawyers, law enforcement officials and child abduction agents. Some agents say they work with local authorities to enforce family court orders. But often they intervene without hearing both sides of the story, sometimes bringing children back to parents who later lose custody in court or who have been accused of domestic violence. A snatchback, even a successful one, can be harmful to a child, leaving psychological scars that last into adulthood. And parents assume much of the risk: A company might conduct surveillance and plot an escape route but require the left-behind parent to physically grab the child.
“It’s an unregulated industry, and we have seen things go very wrong,” said Vicky Mayes, a spokeswoman for Reunite, a British charity that helps parents of abducted children. “It’s just a massive risk for parents to take. It’s a big financial risk, and it’s a big safety risk for themselves and for their child.”
For decades, many parents have worked with agents who have military experience, such as Gus Zamora, an ex-Army Ranger in Florida, and Michael Taylor, a former Green Beret best known for engineering the Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn’s escape from Japan. In recent years, others have turned to companies with names that evoke corporate power, like ABP World Group.
Preston Findlay, a lawyer for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a Virginia nonprofit, keeps a stack of printouts about child abduction companies in a desk drawer. “Not everyone in that drawer is a straight-up concern,” Mr. Findlay said. “Sometimes it’s a group I’ve never heard of. Sometimes they pop up and change names. One group may post a picture that includes a guy who I’ve seen posted on another site.”
Typically, child retrieval groups employ few full-time employees, more often delegating on-the-ground operations to freelancers paid by the day. Many agents advertise aggressively, announcing snatchbacks on social media, granting interviews to reporters, or denigrating industry rivals in long-winded blog posts. In 2015, two operatives for Child Recovery Australia cornered a man in a shopping mall in Malaysia while his ex-girlfriend, the Australian soap opera actress Eliza Szonert, grabbed their 6-year-old son. Mr. Chapman, the company’s founder, filmed the operation, and the video circulated in the Australian media. (Eventually, the father won sole custody in an Australian family court.)
Over the years, a network of middlemen has developed within the industry — lawyers and advocacy groups who put desperate parents in touch with agents, sometimes for a fee. For more than a decade, Eric Kalmus, a Los Angeles businessman who was separated from his own child after he split up with his wife, served as a conduit between left-behind fathers and ex-soldiers who claimed to recover children. For $1,500, Mr. Kalmus would coach fathers to sweet-talk their estranged wives and, if that failed, would refer them to abduction agents in the United States or Europe. Occasionally an operation would collapse and the parent would turn on him.