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Missing Children

Family Abductions, Nonfamily Abductions, International, Causes, Prevention And Recovery


A missing child is the ultimate nightmare for parents of every nation—a nightmare imprinted on parents' consciousness by widely publicized abductions in the late twenty and early twenty-first centuries. However, missing persons rarely become the victims of foul play, because although missing-person cases are reported in record numbers, these cases have also been resolved in record numbers.

Several highly publicized abductions and murders in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s brought increased attention to missing children and made it a national concern (Gentry 1988). In response, the U.S. Congress enacted the Missing Children Act in 1982 and the Missing Children's Assistance Act in 1984 (Welsberg 1984). These acts required the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to collect data. The first National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NIS-MART 1) was conducted in 1988, followed by NIS-MART 2 in 2000 (Hanson 2000). In the second study, missing children were classified into the following categories: runaway/thrownaway, nonfamily abduction, family abduction, custodial interference, lost and involuntarily missing, missing due to injury, missing due to false alarm situations, and sexually assaulted.

Thrownaways are children who did not leave home voluntarily, but were abandoned or forced from their homes by parents or guardians. Non-family abductions are children taken by nonrelatives without the knowledge or consent of parents or legal guardians. Family abductions are children taken from or not returned to their residence by a parent or relative (or their agent) in violation of legal or custody agreements. Children who are lost and involuntarily missing and who fail to return home or contact their parents or guardians are classified as missing if the caretaker becomes alarmed and tries to locate them. Children missing due to injury are children who fail to return or make contact with their parents or guardians because they have suffered serious injuries that require medical attention. Children missing due to false alarm situations are so labeled when caretakers report them missing because of a miscommunication between caretakers (Hanson 2000).

Thrownaways are theoretically different but in practice are almost impossible to distinguish from runaways. Children missing because they are lost, injured, or because of miscommunication are usually in situations difficult to avoid and are found quickly. The majority of the 450,000 children reported to police as missing each year are lost or have run away and their cases resolved with minimal effort by law enforcement (Lord, Boudreaux, and Lanning 2001). The categories of missing children examined in this entry are nonfamily and family abductions.

Abductions by strangers understandably receive the most attention and generate the most fear; however, such kidnappings are only a small proportion of the number of missing children reported in the United States. Runaway is the largest category, followed by family abductions, and non-family abductions. Abductions by family members, ranging from 183,200 to 354,100 annually, represent the most prevalent child abduction type. In contrast, child abductions perpetrated by nonfamily members are significantly fewer, ranging from 3,200 to 4,600 cases annually, with 62 percent of these committed by strangers. Long-term stranger abductions of children from birth to eighteen, where serious risk of victim mortality exists, only account for 200 to 300 cases annually (Lord, Boudreaux, and Lanning 2001).

The absence of reliable statistics about kidnapping in the United States, which are not included in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report (UCR), makes determining the threat of kidnapping to juveniles difficult. However, a comprehensive national database on kidnapping and other crimes is beginning to emerge. In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is replacing the UCR with the more comprehensive National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which collects information on crimes known to the police, such as the inclusion of specific data on kidnapping. When only kidnapping of juveniles is considered, 49 percent is by a family member, 27 percent by an acquaintance, and 24 percent by a stranger (Finkelhor and Ormrod 2000).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & Parenthood