Missing Children Rarely Abducted by Strangers

Missing and abducted children have been a big news topic lately, spurred by a host of high-profile conspiracy-theories and falsehoods that began slithering their way through social media. A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking we're in the midst of a child-abduction epidemic. But the truth is that American children today are no more likely to be kidnapped than they were decades ago, and much more likely to be returned safely when they are.

According to an estimate from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), there were just 105 "stereotypical kidnappings" in America between late 2010 and late 2011, the last period for which we have data. (For reference, there were about 73.9 million children in America that year.) Just 65 of these kidnappings were committed by strangers. Less than half involved the abduction of a child under age 12. Only 14 percent of cases were still open after one week, and 92 percent of victims were recovered or returned alive.

In the previous OJJDP survey, from the late 1900s, there had been an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings and just 60 percent of victims made it home.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines stereotypical kidnappings as those in which 1) the victim is under 18-years-old, 2) the kidnapper is either a stranger or a "slight acquaintance," 3) the abduction involves moving the victim at least 20 feet or detaining them for at least one hour, and 4) the victim is either held for ransom, transported at least 50 miles, detained overnight, held with an intent to keep permanently, or killed. In other words, these are "the most serious" sorts of child abductions, as DOJ puts it.

However, not all of the 105 cases in this category are quite as stereotypical or serious as the others. DOJ defines slight acquaintance as someone the child or their family have known for less than six months, someone they've known for longer than six months but see less than once per month, or someone who might be recognizable to a child or their parents but not known by name. In one "stereotypical kidnapping" case DOJ highlights, a 16-year-old girl ran away to live with an adult boyfriend, who is defined as a "slight acquaintance" because she had only been seeing him a few months. So the number of stereotypical kidnappings that the general public would consider stereotypical is actually lower than the feds' estimate.

Both the 2011 and the 1997 data come from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART). By surveying law-enforcement agencies in a representative sample of U.S. counties, OJJDP came up with estimates for the prevalence and characteristics of stereotypical kidnapping overall during the study periods. The latest NISMART survey covers incidents that occurred between October 1, 2010, and September 20, 2011. The previous survey covers incidents that occured in 1997. Here's an overview of what the federal surveys found.

Number of "stereotypical kidnappings" in America, October 2010 - September 2011: 105

  • perpetrated by strangers: 65
  • perpetrated by slight acquaintances: 40

Are stereotypical kidnappings up or down? Down, maybe—there were 115 incidents defined as stereotypical kidnappings in the '90s NISMART survey, compared to 105 in more recent research. But because these estimates are based in part on weighted data, the DOJ considers the two numbers "statistically equivalent." However, 2010-2011 victims were much more likely to make it home safely than their 1990s counterparts. In the 90s survey, only 60 percent of stereotypical kidnapping cases ended with the child being recovered alive. In the 2010-2011 survey, it was 92 percent.

Ages of victims: More than half of stereotypical kidnapping victims in 2010-2011 were ages 12 or above. In total, an estimated 61 victims were between 12- and 17-years-old. An estimated 19 victims were between 6- and 11-years-old, with 11 victims between ages three and five and around 14 that were two-years-old or younger.

Race, ethnicity, and gender of victims: Most of the stereotypical kidnapping victims from the more recent survey—approximately 81 percent—were female. Girls ages 12-17 accounted for about half of all victims, with girls age 11 or younger accounting for another 30 percent. About 12 percent of victims were boys age 11 or younger. Nearly two-thirds (61 percent) of victims from 2010-11 were white, 31 percent were black, and about 24 percent were (white or black) Hispanic. In the 1997 survey, 74 percent of stereotypical-kidnapping victims were white and 19 percent were black, with eight percent identified as Hispanic.

Race, ethnicity, and gender of perpetrators: Three quarters of perpetrators were male, and nearly three quarters were between 18- and 35-years-old. The remaining perpetrators were mostly between the ages of 36 and 45. Around 44 percent were white, 45 percent black, and 18 percent were Hispanic. Relatively few cases (17 percent) involved more than one kidnapper.

Where and how do stereotypical kidnappings occur? About 32 percent of those abducted were taken from a place where they were living or staying (their home, a relative's home, a homeless shelter, etc.). Another 32 percent were abducted at the kidnapper's home. The final 36 percent of victims were taken from a public place of some sort. Most cases featured only one victim (81 percent) and only 18 percent of cases involved a child taken from a group of two or more children. In nearly two-thirds of the abductions, the victims voluntarily went with kidnappers at first.

What happens to victims after they're abducted? In 66 percent of stereotypical kidnapping cases, a perpetrator used force or threats to detain their victim(s). About 37 cases involved physical abuse, 66 cases involved sexual abuse, and 25 cases involved neglect. Some 17 cases were suspected to be related to sex trafficking, but did not necessarily involve sex trafficking.

In more than one third of the stereotypical kidnapping cases, victims were found or returned within 24 hours. In another 31 percent of incidents, the victim was found or returned within one to three days. Only 15 total cases dragged on for more than one week.