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Results

Table 2 shows that the total number of children who were abducted by a family member in 1999 is estimated to be 203,900. Of these, the number counted as “caretaker missing” (i.e., the caretaker did not know where the child was, became alarmed for at least an hour, and looked for the child) is estimated to be 117,200 (about 57 percent of all children who experienced a family abduction), and the number “reported missing” (i.e., reported to police or a missing children’s agency for purposes of being located) is estimated to be 56,500 (28 percent of all children who experienced a family abduction). The diagram on this page illustrates the proportional relationships between all family abducted children and the subsets of children who were caretaker missing and reported missing. It also shows that the children who were reported missing are a subset of those who were caretaker missing. (Note that this Bulletin presents data on the characteristics of all family abducted children, not just those who were classified as caretaker missing or reported missing.)

Table 2: Estimates of Family Abducted Children

Category
Estimated Number
(95% Confidence Interval)*
Percent
All family abductions
203,900
(151,700–256,100)
100
Caretaker missing•
117,200
(79,000–155,400)
57
Reported missing
56,500
(22,600–90,400)
28

Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100.

* The 95-percent confidence interval indicates that if the study were repeated 100 times, 95 of the replications would produce estimates within the ranges noted.

• Whereabouts unknown to caretaker, caretaker alarmed and tried to locate child. Includes reported missing cases.

Reported to police or a missing children’s agency for purposes of locating the child. This is a subset of caretaker missing cases.


Estimates of Family Abducted Children

Venn diagram illustrating the proportions of children who were caretaker missing and reported missing in relation to all family abducted children.

* Whereabouts unknown to caretaker, caretaker alarmed and tried to locate child.

Reported to police or a missing children’s agency for purposes of locating the child.

Characteristics of Family Abducted Children

Table 3 indicates that, although children of any age can be victims of family abduction, younger children appear to be particularly vulnerable. In 1999, 44 percent of family abducted children were younger than age 6. Older teenagers (ages 15–17) accounted for a small proportion of family abduction victims; this finding may reflect the relative independence of teenagers, which makes it more difficult for parents to control where they go and stay. Boys and girls were equally likely to experience family abductions.

The racial/ethnic distribution of family abducted children corresponds to the distribution of children in the general population. This indicates that family abductions do not occur disproportionately in any one racial/ethnic group.

Not surprisingly, family abductions were much more likely to occur in families where children were not living with both parents—the circumstance that gives rise to motives for family abduction. Forty-two percent of the family abducted children were living with one parent, and another 17 percent were living with one parent and that parent’s partner. Fifteen percent of children abducted by family members were abducted from relatives or foster parents.

Table 3: Characteristics of Family Abducted Children

Child Characteristic
Estimated Number
95% Confidence
Interval*
Percent
(
n = 203,900)
95% Confidence
Interval*
Percent of
U.S. Child

Population§

(
N=70,172,700)
Age
0–2
43,400
(11,000–75,700)
21
(7–35)
16
3–5
47,100
(22,800–71,400)
23
(13–34)
16
6–11
71,000
(42,100–100,000)
35
(23–46)
34
12–14
35,200
(14,900–55,500)
17
(8–26)
17
15–17
7,200
(<100–15,400)
4
(<1–8)
17
Gender 
Male
100,300
(60,500–140,100)
49
(36–62)
51
Female
103,500
(69,700–137,400)
51
(38–64)
49
Race/ethnicity
White, non-Hispanic
119,400
(78,100–160,600)
59
(44–73)
65
Black, non-Hispanic
23,900
(8,200–39,600)
12
(4–19)
15
Hispanic
40,600
(7,900–73,300)
20
(5–34)
16
Other
16,200
(3,400–29,000)
8
(2–14)
5
No information
3,800
(<100–11,200)
2
(<1–12)
Family structure
Two parents
7,200
(<100–15,700)
4
(<1–8)
Single parent
85,500
(51,400–119,600)
42
(26–58)
One parent and partner
35,300
(15,700–54,900)
17
(7–27)
One parent, partner unknown
800
(<100–2,500)
<1
(<1–1)
Relative or foster parent
30,300
(<100–62,100)
15
(1–29)
No parent
3,700
(<100–8,700)
2
(<1–4)
No information
41,000
(12,300–69,700)
20
(8–32)

Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* The 95-percent confidence interval indicates that if the study were repeated 100 times, 95 of the replications would produce estimates within the ranges noted.

§ Age, gender, and race for the U.S. population were based on the average monthly estimates of the population ages 0–17 for 1999 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

Characteristics of Family Abduction Perpetrators

As shown in table 4, a little more than one-third (35 percent) of family abducted children were abducted by multiple offenders (e.g., a father and his girlfriend). The following discussion of perpetrator characteristics refers to the perpetrator most closely related to the abducted child.

Table 4: Multiple Perpetrators in Family abductions

 

Estimated Number
of Family
Percent Abducted Children

Percent
(
n = 203,900)
More than one perpetrator
Yes
72,400
35
No
123,500
61
No information
8,000*
4*
Number of perpetrators
One
123,500
61
Two
59,800
29
Three
7,200*
4*
Four or more
5,400*
3*
No information
8,000*
4*


Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

Table 5 shows that just more than half (53 percent) of children abducted by a family member in 1999 were abducted by the biological father. Twenty-five percent were abducted by the biological mother. Fourteen percent were abducted by a grandparent, and there were also some abductions by a sibling, uncle, aunt, and mother’s boyfriend.2 Given the likelihood of being abducted by the biological father, it is not surprising that 66 percent of the family abducted children were abducted by a male. The age distribution in table 5 shows that 45 percent of the family abducted children were abducted by perpetrators in their 30s.

Table 5: Characteristics of Family Abduction Perpetrators

Perpetrator Characteristic

Estimated Number
of Family
Abducted Children

Percent
(
n = 203,900)
Relationship to child
Child’s father
108,700
53
Child’s mother
50,500
25
Child’s stepfather
3,300*
2*
Child’s sister
1,900*
1*
Child’s uncle
6,000*
3*
Child’s aunt
3,000*
1*
Child’s grandfather
13,700*
7*
Child’s grandmother
13,400*
7*
Child’s mother’s boyfriend
3,200*  
2*
Gender
Male
135,000
66
Female
68,900
34
Age
Teens
1,300*
1*
20s
45,000
22
30s
91,400
45
40s
55,200
27
50s
3,000*
1*
60s
1,400*
1*
No information
6,600*
3*


Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.


Characteristics of Family Abduction Episodes

Location and season. Table 6 shows that children abducted by a family member usually were in their own home or yard (36 percent) or in someone else’s home or yard (37 percent) just prior to the abduction. Removal from school or daycare was relatively infrequent (7 percent). Sixty-three percent of children abducted by a family member were with the abductor, under lawful circumstances, immediately prior to the abduction. Some seasonal variation in family abductions is evident. Thirty-five percent of children were abducted in the summer (June through August), probably because children tend to spend time with noncustodial parents in the summer, thus increasing opportunities for abduction.

Duration. Table 6 also shows that the vast majority of children abducted by a family member had been returned at the time of the interview (91 percent). Forty-six percent of all family abducted children were gone less than 1 week, and 23 percent were gone less than 1 day. The proportion gone for 1 month or longer was 21 percent, and 6 percent were gone for 6 months or longer. Only 6 percent had not yet returned at the time of the survey interview; all of these children had, however, been located.3 (Seventy-eight percent of the children who had not returned had been gone 6 months or more; the remaining 22 percent had been gone at least 1 month but less than 6 months. These figures are not shown in the table.)

Table 6: Characteristics of Family Abductions

Abduction Characteristic
Estimated Number of
Family
Abducted Children
Percent
(
n = 203,900)
Child’s location prior to episode
Own home or yard
73,800
36
Other home or yard
76,300
37
Public area
15,700*
8*
School or daycare
13,700*
7*
Parent’s or caretaker’s car
5,100*
3*
Street
3,300*
2*
On vacation
3,200*
2*
No information
12,600*
6*
Child with perpetrator immediately prior to episode
Yes
128,000
63
No
73,900
36
No information
2,000*
1*
Season
Winter
48,300
24
Spring
29,700
15
Summer
72,300
35
Fall
53,600
26
Duration
Less than 1 hour
6,300*
3*
1 hour to 6 hours
33,600*
16*
7 hours to less than 24 hours
7,500*
4*
24 hours to less than 1 week
46,600
23
1 week to less than 1 month
48,000
24
1 month to less than 6 months
29,700
15
6 months or more
12,400*
6*
Not returned, but located
12,700*
6*
No information
7,100*
3*
Episode outcome
Child returned
186,400
91
Child not returned, but located
12,700*
6*
Child not returned and not located
<100*
<1*
No information
4,800*
2*

Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.


Indicators of serious episodes. Table 7 shows that the use of threats, physical force, or weapons was relatively uncommon in family abductions. Seventeen percent of family abducted children were moved out of State with intent to make recovery difficult. Forty-four percent were concealed from the aggrieved caretaker. The most common serious elements were attempts to prevent contact (76 percent) and intent to affect custodial privileges permanently (82 percent).

Table 7: Indicators of More Serious Family Abductions

Abduction Characteristic
Estimated Number
of Family

Abducted
Children
Percent
(n = 203,900)
Use of threat
Yes
9,000*
4*
No
183,900
90
No information
11,000*
5*
Use of force
Yes
15,000*
7*
No
177,900
87
No information
11,000*
5*
Use of weapon
Yes
2,700*
1*
No
190,200
93
No information
11,000*
5*
Child taken out of State with intent to make recovery more difficult
Yes
35,200
17
No
168,700
83
Child concealed
Yes
90,600
44
No
113,300
56
Intent to prevent contact
Yes
153,900
76
No
46,900
23
No information
3,000*
1*
Intent to affect custody permanently
Yes
166,600
82
No
37,300
18


Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

Police Contact

As shown in table 8, aggrieved caretakers contacted the police regarding 60 percent of the family abducted children. However, not all of these contacts were for the purpose of locating the child. Fifty percent of the contacts were to recover the child from a known location; 42 percent were to locate the child.

Table 8: Police Contact for Family Abductions

 
Estimated Number
of Family

Abducted
Children
Percent
Police contact 
Yes
121,800
60
No
82,100
40
Total
203,900
100
Reason police were contacted 
Recover child from known location
61,100
50
Locate missing child
50,800
42
Other reason
6,900*
6*
No information
3,000*
2*
Total
121,800
100
Reason police were not contacted 
Resolved problem alone or with family
19,100*
23*
Did not think police could help
12,200*
15*
Knew child’s location
7,900*
10*
Dissatisfied with prior police contact
6,300*
8*
Afraid that child would be harmed
5,300*
6*
Handled problem with lawyer
4,900*
6*
Knew that child would not be harmed
4,500*
6*
Advised by others not to contact police
2,400*
3*
Other
3,800*
5*
No information
15,700*
19*
Total
82,100
100


Note: All estimates are rounded to the nearest 100. Percents may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

* Estimate is based on too few sample cases to be reliable.

Caretakers did not contact the police regarding 40 percent of the family abducted children, citing a variety of reasons. In some cases, they resolved the episode on their own (23 percent) or with a lawyer (6 percent). Some believed that police assistance was not necessary because they knew the child’s location (10 percent) or knew that the child would not be harmed (6 percent). Some caretakers feared the child would be harmed if they contacted the police (6 percent). Others did not think the police could help (15 percent), were dissatisfied with police response to a previous contact (8 percent), or had been advised by others not to contact the police (3 percent).

Historical Trends

A special analysis of NISMART–1 and NISMART–2 data was conducted to identify historical trends in family abduction.4 The analysis suggests that, between 1988 and 1999, the incidence rate of children who were victims of serious family abductions did not change, but there may have been a decline in the rate for children who were victims of less serious episodes involving various forms of custodial interference. Details of this analysis will be presented in OJJDP’s forthcoming Bulletin, Historical Change in the Incidence of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children, 1988–1999.

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Children Abducted by Family Members:
National Estimates and Characteristics
NISMART Bulletin
October 2002