Parents whose children have been kidnapped by an estranged spouse typically get little help from the Internal Revenue Service in locating their missing children.

The problem was the subject of an eye-opening article in The New York Times on Friday. The problem can be traced to taxpayer privacy laws, which prevent the IRS from divulging information such as the whereabouts of a parental abductor, unless the kidnapping is the subject of a federal criminal investigation and a U.S. district court judge has ordered the IRS to release the information. However, most parental abduction cases are investigated by state and local authorities, who often do not have sufficient clout to force the IRS to hand over the information.

A surprising number of parental abductors file tax returns and even claim the children as dependents, according to a 2007 study by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. More than a third of the 1,700 children studied in the report had their Social Security numbers listed on their parents’ tax returns.

In one recent case, the IRS informed a parent whose son was missing that she could not claim the child as a dependent because someone else had already claimed him. She was eventually reunited with the boy, but only because someone had spotted his photo on a flyer for missing children.

The IRS used to provide more assistance in locating missing children years ago by printing their photos in the tax form packages it would mail to people’s homes. It published about 2,500 such photos from January 2001 to July 2006, according to the TIGTA report. In some states, like New York, taxpayers can elect to send some of their money to a Missing and Exploited Children’s Fund through their state tax return.

While the IRS is permitted to hand over information in child support cases, its inability under federal law to provide such information in missing children cases must be frustrating to parents who could use the agency’s help. Let’s hope Congress takes a look at the issue in its next term. A little prodding from the Taxpayer Advocate Service might help too.