Conceptualizing the Problem

The controversy and confusion that have plagued efforts to estimate the number of children abducted by nonfamily perpetrators stem in part from ambiguities regarding the meaning of the term “abduction.” Because the media focus on notorious crimes, such as the kidnappings of Samantha Runnion, Polly Klass, and Adam Walsh, child abduction is conventionally thought of as a life-threatening crime of substantial duration and distance involving strangers. However, as legally defined, an abduction can occur when a person is held against his or her will for a modest amount of time or moved even a short distance, which often occurs in the commission of other crimes. Estimates based solely on the legal definition of abduction would be unlikely to satisfy those wanting to know about the risk and nature of stereotypical kidnappings, nor would the stereotypical kidnapping estimates alone satisfy those concerned about the phenomenon of abductions in general.

To satisfy both needs, NISMART–2 provides information about nonfamily abductions using two definitions. The narrower concept of stereotypical kidnapping pertains to the more serious type of abduction perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance in which a child is taken or detained overnight, transported a distance of 50 or more miles, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. The broader concept of nonfamily abduction includes stereotypical kidnappings but also includes less serious nonfamily abductions involving the movement of a child using physical force or threat, the detention of a child for a substantial period of time (at least 1 hour) in a place of isolation using threat or physical force, or the luring of a child younger than 15 years old for purposes of ransom, concealment, or intent to keep permanently. (See Defining Nonfamily Abduction and Related Terms.)

Despite confusion about the meaning of abduction and the impression conveyed by notorious cases, an abduction does not necessarily imply that a child is missing. For example, a child can be abducted on the way home from school, dragged into a remote area, sexually assaulted, and released without being missed by a caretaker or reported as missing to any law enforcement agency. Even in more serious or lengthier stereotypical kidnappings, the victim will not qualify as a missing child if no one notices the child’s absence or if the discovery of the child’s body is the first evidence of the episode. Thus, the current study counted the child victims of nonfamily abductions who were not missing as well as those who were. (See Examples of NISMART–2 Nonfamily Abductions.)

The term “missing” itself has somewhat different meanings in different contexts. NISMART–2 characterized two types of missing children: “caretaker missing” children, who were missing from their caretakers whether or not those caretakers alerted any authority about the situation, and “reported missing” children, who were reported to law enforcement for purposes of locating the child. (Caretaker missing means that the child’s whereabouts were unknown to the child’s primary caretaker, with the result that the caretaker was alarmed for at least 1 hour and tried to locate the child.)

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Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics
NISMART Bulletin
October 2002