Child Abductions By Strangers Very Rare

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With the news coverage of the abduction and long-term captivity of three girls in Cleveland, many parents are keeping an extra-close eye on their children while the news media warn kids about the dangers of kidnapping.

Time magazine, among many news outlets, emphasized the threat of stranger kidnappings and offered tips for kids and adults on how to avoid abduction. In a story about a smartphone app to thwart kidnappings, one TechHive writer stated, “Although we’d like to think otherwise, women are still abducted on a daily basis.”

Unfortunately, information on kidnapping prevention rarely tells children what to do in case of the most common type of abduction. It may also be needlessly scaring children and parents by mischaracterizing the majority of child abductions.

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As discussed in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, “While the term ‘missing child’ may conjure up visions of malevolent, trench-coated men luring children into their cars with candy or Pokémon cards, the reality is much different. The vast majority of ‘missing’ children are taken by family members, often when one divorced parent absconds with a child during legally sanctioned visitation. The child may not be where he morally or legally should be, but it is a far cry from being in a dangerous stranger’s clutches. This puts the term ‘missing’ in a whole new light, since at least one parent knew exactly where the child was. ‘Missing,’ then, is used as more of a legal word regarding the child’s status than a descriptive one designating the child’s whereabouts.”

False Reports

Not only are most children abducted by a parent or caregiver, but — perhaps surprisingly — many abduction reports (thankfully) turn out to be hoaxes or false alarms. In just the past week, for example, a North Carolina mother lied about her toddler being abducted from her home. An Amber Alert was issued, and police later found the child safe in Washington, D.C., with her father.

A few days before that, a pair of 13-year-olds in Canada told police that they were approached by a man in a white SUV who repeatedly made sexual comments and tried to lure them into his vehicle. Police determined the report was false, and the teens admitted they made up the story. That same day a 13-year-old Tucson girl told police that two men in a van tried to abduct her on the way to school. She refused to get in the van with them, and when they finally drove off she heard someone inside the van screaming for help. Police teams searched the area for hours but nothing was found. The girl soon admitted that “she made up the story because she was late for school.”

Despite such hoaxes and false alarms, all reports of abductions and attempted abductions are taken seriously and fully investigated by police. Parents may find some comfort that child abductions are much less common than they seem to be, and that many cases they hear about on the news turn out to be mistakes or pranks, not an endangered child.

Stranger Danger Fears

Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions, 3.1 percent of its caseload. A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that more than 3/4 of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.

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In fact, children are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped or killed by their parents than any stranger on the street. University of Southern California sociology professor Barry Glassner wrote about missing children in his book The Culture of Fear: “In national surveys conducted in recent years 3 out of 4 parents say they fear that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger. They harbor this anxiety, no doubt, because they keep hearing frightening statistics and stories about perverts snatching children off the street. What the public doesn’t hear often or clearly enough is that the majority of missing children are runaways fleeing from physically or emotionally abusive parents.”

Child abductions are a real threat, but the risk should be kept in perspective to avoid unnecessarily alarming parents and children. In his book Protecting the Gift, child-safety expert Gavin De Becker pointed out that compared to a stranger kidnapping, “ child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk.”

Photo: Corbis

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