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Conclusions and Policy Implications

Family abductions constitute an important peril in the lives of children, particularly children living in households without one of their biological parents. The estimated 203,900 children who were victims of a family abduction in 1999 represent a large group of children caught up in divisive and potentially disturbing family dynamics.

Need for Services That Address Underlying Conflicts

Fifty-seven percent of the children who were abducted by a family member were caretaker missing (in the sense that their caretaker did not know where they were, became alarmed, and tried to locate them). Family abducted children constituted only 9 percent of all children classified as caretaker missing and only 7 percent of all children reported missing. In considering these statistics, however, it is important to remember that the potential for harm to family abducted children exists whether or not they are classified as missing. Family abduction is not just a problem of missing children.

In addition to locating and returning family abducted children, agencies seeking to help these children must address the conflicts that produce and prolong the abduction of children by family members. The fact that fully 40 percent of family abductions were not reported to the police underscores the importance of agencies that can provide a response to threatened and actual family abductions over and above the important location and recovery function performed by law enforcement.

Reality vs. Stereotype

Although the family abductions described in this study typically had certain disturbing elements such as attempts to prevent contact or alter custodial arrangements permanently, they did not generally involve the most serious sorts of features associated with the types of family abductions likely to be reported in the news. Actual concealment of the child occurred in a minority of episodes. Use of force, threats to harm the child, and flight from the State were uncommon. In contrast to the image created by the word “abduction,” most of the children abducted by a family member were already in the lawful custody of the perpetrator when the episode started. In addition, nearly half of the family abducted children were returned in 1 week or less, and the majority were returned within 1 month.

Limitations of the Findings

The fact that family abductions in this study tended to resolve themselves in time should not lead one to assume that most family abductions are relatively benign and can be resolved without the intervention of authorities. The researchers in this study were not in a position to provide a full assessment of the types of harm that family abductions inflicted on children or the extent to which intervention by outside authorities facilitated the resolution of family abductions.5

Focus on Younger Children

This study’s finding that younger children are the ones at greater risk of family abduction parallels findings from previous NISMART studies and other studies as well. Family abduction is one of the few victimization perils that younger children experience to a greater extent than older children. Thus, prevention efforts should focus on younger children, especially those who do not live with both biological parents. Programs that specifically promote child well-being and those that address child safety issues generally may be appropriate forums in which to raise awareness about family abduction.

The estimate of the number of family abducted children known to police from this NISMART–2 study, approximately 121,800 in 1999, contrasts with a 1992 estimate of 30,500 family abductions known to police based on a survey of law enforcement agencies (Grasso et al., 2001). The discrepancy could reflect a change in help-seeking patterns during the 1990s in the wake of family abductions. It may be that victims of family abduction in NISMART–2 overstated to interviewers their propensity to contact police. But more likely, it reflects the fact that police do not keep full records of all the individuals who contact them about family abductions and may not categorize the episodes as such in their databases.

An Area in Need of Further Attention

Despite close to 20 years of organized concern about missing children, and despite the creation of missing child prevention and intervention programs, the family abduction problem remains one area where efforts may be the least developed. Knowledge about the number of children who experience family abductions should spur efforts to prevent the occurrence of family abductions and help children and their aggrieved caretakers recover from the effects of these abductions when they occur.

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