The news, at the same time shocking and hopeful, about the discovery of three young women who went missing in Cleveland about a decade ago has riveted the country. The notion of a stranger grabbing a child off the street occupies a prominent place in popular fears. But the missing-children cases that rise to the level of news tend to distort perceptions of how often children go missing and why. It’s important to sort out the myth and reality about missing kids.
1. Most missing children have been abducted by strangers.
Stranger abductions, such as the case of the three young women in Cleveland, are fearsome because they appear random and so often involve rape or homicide. But children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of 1 percent of all missing children. The last comprehensive study estimated that the number was 115 in a year.
Far more common are children who have run away, have gotten lost or injured, have been taken by a family member (usually in a custody dispute) or simply aren’t where they’re expected to be because of a miscommunication. The only scenario more unusual than stereotypical kidnapping is when families falsely report a child as missing to disguise murderous deeds.
While abduction and homicide are truly horrible, the costs of more common missing-children cases shouldn’t be underestimated. Those cases, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, occupy vast amounts of police time and leave lasting scars on their victims as well.
2. More and more children are going missing.
The Cleveland case has prompted a spate of missing-children articles and news reports: “Missing Children in America: Unsolved Cases,” “Search for missing children never ends in Las Vegas,” “LA Missing Children’s Families May Feel Renewed Hope.” It may seem like we’re in the midst of an epidemic. In reality, though, all signs indicate that the problem has been improving. Many state missing-children agencies show declining numbers of cases. That trend is supported by FBI statistics showing fewer missing persons of all ages — down 31 percent between 1997 and 2011. The numbers of homicides, sexual assaults and almost all other crimes against children have been dropping, too.
Why fewer missing kids? Cellphones are almost certainly part of the explanation. When a friend of my son’s skiied off a trail and into the Maine wilderness near nightfall last winter, a cellphone call got the ski patrol to the right spot and short-circuited what could have been a lengthy search and a possible fatality. Cellphones allow children to summon help and get out of threatening situations. They enable parents to figure out where their kids are when they don’t come home. They afford teens a somewhat longer leash than in the past and thus help counteract one important motive — a quest for autonomy — for children who disappear on their own.
Other factors are probably involved in the decline, too. Over the past three decades, we have become more aggressive about finding, prosecuting, incarcerating, supervising, treating and deterring sex offenders. And we have implemented prevention programs and response systems, such as Amber Alert, that both discourage crime and resolve disappearances quickly.
3. The Internet has made kidnapping easier.
Many parents worry about their kids meeting unsavory characters online. But in light of the falling rates of crimes against children, the idea that the Internet amplifies danger is suspect. In fact, it may have contributed to the decline in missing children. For one thing, the Web has changed the way young people take risks: They do it more often at home. Instead of going to the unchaperoned open house or the keg party at the quarry, young people these days socialize and experiment online. Although they can meet people with bad intentions, the physical distance means that more time and thinking elapse between an encounter and a crime.
Moreover, electronic tracks mean that schemes get discovered and foiled. After a mother in one of my studies found e-mails between her 13-year-old daughter and an out-of-state adult, planning a getaway, the man found himself having a tryst with police.
4. Prevention lies in teaching children to avoid strangers.
Many schools and parents use the mantra “Never talk to strangers.” It’s doubtful that this really helps. Everyone is a stranger at first; it’s all about the context of the meeting, and that’s hard to convey. But we do know that children are vastly more likely to come to harm and even be abducted by people they know than by people they don’t. We’d do much better to teach them the signs of people (strangers or not) who are behaving badly: touching them inappropriately, being overly personal, trying to get them alone, acting drunk, provoking others or recklessly wielding weapons. We need to help children practice refusal skills, disengagement skills and how to summon help. We need some new prevention mantras.
5. The main goal should be to reunite children with their families.
The professionals who deal with missing-children cases are primarily police officers who are trained to locate young people and bring them back. Sadly, the majority of missing children are suffering from severe and protracted conflict in their families. They run away or are pushed out because they are at odds with their parents and siblings or because they are victims of abuse and neglect. They are taken or held by parents battling fruitlessly over custody rights. Bringing these children home generally does nothing about the conflict and abuse that eat away at their mental health and well-being.
So our response to missing children has to be about much more than bringing them home. It has to include resources — such as family therapy, mediation and child protection — that help to resolve conflicts. Better yet, it should include parenting education and other support programs that help build strong families and prevent problems in the first place.
David Finkelhor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire and a researcher for the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children.