The IRS cooperates with other agencies to collect past-due child support, federal agency non-tax debts and state income tax obligations. Yet when it comes to working with investigators to reunite abducted children with their legal guardians, the Service says “no can do.”
About 200,000 family abductions are reported annually in the United States. These cases, in which a non-custodial relative illegally takes a child from the custodial parent or guardian, represent the majority of missing children. The IRS has information that could help solve many of these cases, but taxpayer privacy laws prevent that information from being used. The IRS is authorized to provide information to federal investigators, but not to the state and local prosecutors who investigate the majority of parental abduction cases.
A 2007 Treasury Department study compared data for 1,731 family abduction cases with tax return data. In 520 instances, nearly one-third of the cases considered, the study’s authors were able to match Social Security numbers of missing children with Social Security numbers on tax returns. In about half of those cases, the returns also provided new addresses for the children. The abductors disclosed the children’s whereabouts in order to take advantage of tax exemptions and credits.
Those 520 tax returns were never used to help locate the missing children. A federal judge in Virginia refused to authorize the IRS to release the information to investigators.
Hamstrung by the law, the IRS has been able to aid the families of missing children only through its “Picture Them Home” program, which places photos of missing children on printed returns (which are being phased out as electronic filing becomes more common). That program has helped locate only about 80 children since 2001. Those 80 happy endings are just a small fraction of what the IRS could accomplish if it had more freedom.
Fewer people would claim tax exemptions for abducted children if they knew that information could be passed on to investigators, but some would inevitably continue to hand over information to the IRS. Harold Copus, a retired FBI agent, told The New York Times that even under current laws it “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” that abductors report missing children on their tax returns. “But,” he said, “If they were thinking clearly, they wouldn’t have abducted their child in the first place.”
Dennis DeConcini, a former Democratic senator from Arizona, tried to get the pertinent law changed in 2004, but the idea did not get off the ground. According to DeConcini, other lawmakers worried that allowing the IRS to release data to investigators would create a slippery slope and eventually destroy taxpayer privacy.
There are worthy policy goals behind the taxpayer privacy laws. We all have a legal and civic obligation to pay our fair share of running the government. People are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and have a right not to give testimony against themselves. If we strip taxpayers of privacy protections, it is not clear how judges will react when people start filing returns that contain nothing more than a name, a Social Security number and a statement that the taxpayer is invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. These claims, which are the sort of thing fringe-group tax protesters file nowadays, might no longer be automatically thrown out of court. Besides criminal matters, taxpaying citizens ought not to be forced to disclose financial data to the government if the government might, in turn, pass that data to creditors, employees, business partners, angry spouses or jealous relatives.
But these arguments pale next to the agony and costs of child abductions. An abducted child is torn from the parent or guardian who should be part of their lives, often the person that courts have specifically declared to be the best protector of that child. Parents lose the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a child grow up. Parents who have experienced such abductions often say the worst element is simply not knowing that their children are safe, healthy and happy.
A new Congress will be seated shortly after New Year’s Day. When they get to work, those 535 men and women should ask themselves one question: If you had a child or grandchild whose whereabouts were unknown to you, but known to the U.S. government, would you expect the government to do what it could to reunite you?
When that question is answered, the law will be changed immediately. And thousands of American lives will also be changed for the better.