In March last year, Neely Blanchard allegedly abducted her twin daughters from the court-ordered care of their grandmother in Kentucky. In letters she sent to the Logan County Sheriff, Blanchard maintained that the authorities had no legal jurisdiction over her. The girls were rescued two days later, when Blanchard was arrested hiding out in a motel in the company of others who shared her legal views. Freed on bond, in November she was arrested again in Georgia after she allegedly murdered a Florida man who purported to have the legal expertise to help her reclaim her children.

A few months later, in September 2020, Cyndie Abcug allegedly became convinced that a Denver foster home was abusing her son. According to police reports, she was armed, in the company of a supposedly trained sniper, and had made plans to raid the foster home and kidnap her child. When authorities were tipped off by her daughter, Abcug’s plan failed. A well-connected Arkansas politician fond of filing bizarre court documents in her own child custody case then took up Abcug’s cause. Accompanied by various like-minded companions, Abcug also traveled to Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, and Arkansas, until finally arriving in Kalispell last December, where she and a companion were arrested.

In October 2020, Emily Jolley allegedly abducted her 6-year-old son after the boy’s father dropped off the child with Jolley’s Millcreek, Utah mother for a supervised visit. When police questioned Jolley’s mother, she produced spurious legal documents regarding her daughter’s actions and was arrested on obstruction of justice charges. In the charging documents, Jolley is reported to have maintained that the boy was her property and should be returned to her. An Amber Alert determined that the mother and a companion had traveled to Oregon, where they were arrested on federal kidnapping charges. The boy was returned to his father.

Murder, kidnapping, and interstate flight are so out of the pale that these horrifying stories could all too easily be dismissed as the actions of emotionally unbalanced parents. But there is something far more sinister here. The Kentucky mother wrote letters questioning the legal jurisdiction of the authorities; one of the Colorado woman’s allies filed briefs insisting that the foster care system had no legal authority, and the Utah woman’s mother bandied about fictitious government documents to the same effect.

What we see here is the pernicious influence of the so-called “sovereign citizens” movement, at work in over 100 websites. Given to filing lengthy court briefs and fabricating spurious legal documents, sovereign citizens maintain that our current legal system has illegally usurped the “common law” of the founding fathers. A “domestic terror threat,” according to the FBI, sovereign citizens proclaim themselves free to violently disobey the law.  For the sovereign citizen, our entire legal system is illegitimate, even more so child protection laws. As Will Sommer writes, sovereign citizens believe that “children in the custody of a relative or foster parent are instead headed toward an abuse-and-torture network run by global elites.”

Here the sovereign citizen becomes the ally of an online conspiracy theory which acquired notoriety in 2016 when Edgar Maddison, a North Carolina father, traveled to Washington DC to rescue children from Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria. Armed with an assault rifle, he threatened employees, convinced that a pedophile ring was murdering children in the pizzeria’s non-existent basement. There, Maddison believed, high-profile politicians sacrificed children in a Satanic ritual to extract “adrenochrome,” a substance oxidized from a child’s blood that pedophiles supposedly consume to confer long life. “Pizzagate,” as Maddison’s story came to be known, is not simply another story about an emotionally unbalanced person. Pizzagate has metastasized into QAnon, a social media conspiracy theory in which a mysterious figure known only as Q used Maddison’s story in order to promulgate the belief that politicians, business people, and entertainment figures are responsible for rampant pedophilia.

In October last year, 96 child welfare and human trafficking organizations issued a public letter denouncing QAnon. As the KidSafe Foundation explains, “Many of our supporters are unknowingly re-distributing QAnon messages embedded within posts that appear to be straightforward statements against pedophilia and trafficking. We must speak out strongly against this. Just as education is the most powerful means we have to prevent child sex abuse and trafficking, education will be our most powerful weapon against the threat QAnon presents. All of us working in the field must join together and speak out loudly.”

I am aware that there are those in our own community, and perhaps even some of you reading this blog post, who may have given credence to the truth of these theories. For example, some who joined an August rally to stop childhood sexual abuse were “sympathetic with QAnon,” as reported by the Billings Gazette. As CASAs, we devote considerable time and effort advocating for the safety and best interests of children. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories on social media have become so pervasive that they are doing harm to the efforts of social workers, attorneys, judges, and other professionals who work tirelessly to combat and respond to the true causes of child abuse and neglect. Creating or promoting theories which misattribute the roots of such problems only serves to distract the public from the real, everyday struggles of children in foster care and the families working to get their children back. I hope you will join me in not further victimizing children who have experienced great trauma in their young lives, but instead commit to be a thoughtful participant and productive contributor to making a positive difference for these kids.

Bill McRae was sworn in as a Court Appointed Special Advocate in 2013 and is currently a volunteer Peer Coordinator.