Child Abduction Statistics

Child Abduction StatisticsOne of the concerns that my wife and I shared before I decided to blog was that unsavory folk would somehow be able to use the information contained in my blog to harm our baby. In light of that concern, I was curious about child abduction statistics in the United States.

Slate magazine’s terrific Explainer covered child abduction statistics in a 2007 article by Christopher Beam. Mr. Beam makes one great point: media reports tend to overstate the problem

Number of Abducted Children

The media commonly reports 800,000 children go missing every year in the United States. This figure is based on a 2002 study from the U.S. Department of Justice. In the study, DOJ authors use concentric circles (table 2, page 5) to highlight the way statistics on missing children are analyzed. 1,315,600 children actually go missing in the U.S. every year based on a precise definition:

“Child’s whereabouts were unknown, caretaker was alarmed and tried to locate the child.”

797,500 children are subsequently reported missing to police or missing children agencies.

I am not clear from the report why there is such a huge discrepancy between the number of children who go missing and the number of children who are subsequently reported as missing. I would hope that every parent of a missing child would report the incident. Footnote 6 (page 11) accounts for one grisly reason for the difference: if the discovery of the child’s body is the first evidence that the child is missing then the case does not count as being reported. However — as further analyzed below — this can only account for a fraction of a percent of the difference.

Who Abducts Children

The DOJ studied relied on sampling to derive estimates of the number of missing children. In four categories of child abduction there were sufficient sample sizes to produce tolerable estimates:

  • Benign Explanation for Missing Child
  • Involuntarily Missing Due to Being Lost or Injured
  • Runaway / Throwaway
  • Family Abduction

In one category, non-family abduction, there were so few incidents that the report produces unreliable confidence intervals and questionable precision. Even assuming the data is reliable, non-family abduction accounts for 2% of children reported missing and 3% of missing children.

By comparison, family abduction accounts for 7% of children reported missing and 9% of missing children. Children who are lost or injured account for 8% of children reported missing and 15% of missing children. The other two categories (benign explanation and runaway/throwaway) are responsible for 88% of children reported missing and 76% of missing children.

The report further notes that family abduction figures include issues with non-custodial parents in a divorce. A child who extends a stay at a non-custodial parent’s house without notifying the custodial parent is — based on the DOJ study definition — the victim of a family abduction.

The report also highlights the low frequency of “stereotypical kidnappings”, which are defined as:

“Stereotypical kidnappings are the particular type of nonfamily abduction that receives the most media attention and involves a stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child.”

What We Are Concerned About As Parents

While my wife and I were initially concerned about stereotypical kidnappings, reading the report has made us less concerned about non-family abductions and far more concerned about our daughter becoming lost or injured. Since our family members read this blog I should also state that both of us are not concerned about family abduction.

The common television plot of a random stranger being responsible for child abduction is exceedingly rare in the United States and accounts for only a small fraction of the total number of cases of missing children.