When a parent gets seriously behind on child support, one way to obtain information about his or her whereabouts or income sources is to ask the IRS. The IRS is explicitly authorized to hand over private tax information in child support cases, and they routinely do.
When a non-custodial parent abducts a child, however, tax privacy laws prohibit the IRS from using information from tax returns to help the other parent find the missing child -- and child advocates and fathers' rights groups are concerned.
Every year, about 200,000 children are reported to have been abducted by family members who had no right to take them. The majority of parental abductions occur during child custody disputes. In the most serious 5 or 6 percent of cases, the parent assumes a false identity in order to escape detection, according to Justice Department statistics.
Nevertheless, a significant number of those parents file federal tax returns using their correct Social Security numbers and even claiming the missing children as dependants. In a 2007 study, the U.S. Treasury Department looked for the Social Security numbers of 1,700 missing children suspected to have been abducted by family members. The researchers found that about a third of the missing children had been listed as dependants on federal tax returns.
However, even when the parent suspected of child abduction is a fugitive or the subject of a felony warrant, the IRS can't give the other parent any information unless the parental abduction case is being investigated as a federal crime and a federal judge orders them to release it.
Watergate-Era Privacy Rules Tie the IRS's Hands in Parental Abduction Cases
After the 2007 Treasury Department study, advocates for missing children and both mothers' and fathers' rights groups began to see the IRS as a potentially powerful source of information.
IRS spokesperson Michelle Eldridge indicated that the IRS would like to help -- they just can't under current law. "We will do whatever we can within the confines of the law to make it easier for law enforcement to find abducted children," she said.
The barriers to getting a court order for the tax information are relatively high: not only does the law require that the court order be issued in regards to a criminal parental abduction case, but it also must be a federal case. Unfortunately, most cases of parental abduction are handled in state-level family courts. And, child advocacy groups say, even when the FBI is involved in the investigation, federal court judges rarely grant warrants for tax information.
"There's this sense that because the child is with at least one of their parents, it's not really a problem," says Abby Potash of Team Hope, an organization offering counseling to parents whose children have been abducted by relatives.
There have been attempts to change the law, but they have been largely unsuccessful due to the difficulty of coming up with clear rules on what information the IRS should provide and when, as well as concerns about the gradual erosion of privacy.
"It's one of those areas where you would hope that common sense would prevail," said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "We are talking about people who are fugitives, who have criminal warrants against them. And children who are at risk."
Source: The New York Times, "IRS Sits on Data Pointing to Missing Children," David Kocieniewski, November 12, 2010