When, in the wake of notorious kidnappings, parents and reporters clamor for information about the risk children face for such heinous crimes, the best answer currently available based on the data from this study is that an estimated 115 children and youth were the victims of a stereotypical kidnapping in the study year, and that the true number was somewhere between 60 and 170 (this range represents the 95-percent confidence interval around the estimate). This estimate is consistent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI's) estimates of the number of abductions by strangers in which, because of their seriousness or duration, Federal law enforcement becomes involved (M. Heimbach, personal communication, August 22, 2002).

The larger number identified in this study, the 58,200 nonfamily abduction victims, represents an estimate of the number of child victims of crimes that meet the legal definition of abduction by a nonfamily perpetrator. Most children's nonfamily abduction episodes do not involve elements of the extremely alarming kind of crime that parents and reporters have in mind (such as a child's being killed, abducted overnight, taken long distances, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child) when they think about a kidnapping by a stranger.

There was some kind of police contact regarding 47 percent of the nonfamily abducted children, either to report the child as missing or for other reasons. However, in 53 percent of cases, there was no police contact. Most caretakers who did not contact the police expected the child to return or did not think the episode was particularly serious, and some caretakers were never told about the episode (as revealed by the youth who were interviewed).

In 1988, NISMART–1 estimated that stereotypical kidnappings numbered between 200 and 300 annually (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990). Comparing the new NISMART–2 estimates with these older estimates, people may be inclined to conclude that there has been a substantial decline in stereotypical kidnappings during the past decade. Unfortunately, such a clear-cut conclusion is not scientifically justified by the current evidence because the imprecision of the estimates and differences in the methodologies do not allow it.

The higher estimate of NISMART–1 was obtained using a methodology that differs from the current methodology, and, unlike the current estimate, its precision could not be accurately determined. The actual number of stereotypical kidnappings in the NISMART–1 study year may, in fact, be within the NISMART–2 confidence interval, and thus not significantly different from the NISMART–2 estimate.

Nonetheless, stereotypical kidnappings do not appear to be any more frequent in 1999 than in 1988. Moreover, despite using different methodologies, NISMART–1 and NISMART–2 yield estimates of the same order of magnitude (in the hundreds rather than in thousands), reinforcing confidence that the estimates for both years are in the true range.

The possibility that stereotypical kidnappings have declined is supported by declining rates of juvenile-victim homicides and of sexual and aggravated assaults in the 1990s. Such crimes include instances of and provide the context for many kidnappings by strangers. However, the current data, given their limitations, cannot be used to confirm this possibility.

Comparison of NISMART–1 and NISMART–2 findings with regard to the more general category of nonfamily abduction may also cause confusion. NISMART–1 estimated that approximately 3,200–4,600 children qualified for a "legal definition" nonfamily abduction known to police, which seems markedly smaller than the estimate of 58,200 victims of nonfamily abduction from NISMART–2.

Although the definitions used in NISMART–1 and NISMART–2 were virtually the same, the NISMART–1 estimate included only nonfamily abductions known to police exclusively and was calculated from a review of police records in which researchers looked for elements of abduction in written case material about reported crimes. The estimate was believed at the time to be a serious undercount because police records so frequently failed to note elements of forced movement or detention in their accounts of crimes like sexual assault. In contrast, the NISMART–2 estimate is based on accounts by victims and their caretakers who were asked systematically in a national survey about possible elements of abduction in the course of crime victimizations. Slightly more than half of the estimated 58,200 nonfamily abducted children from NISMART–2 were not even reported to the police.

Nonetheless, in trying to interpret this new and considerably higher estimate of the number of nonfamily abducted children, several considerations should be kept in mind. First, because the new estimate is based on victim accounts rather than police records, it inherently involves a much lower threshold of seriousness. Moreover, the definition of nonfamily abduction used in NISMART involves modest amounts of coerced movement or detention that are present in many violent and sexual crimes. When children suffer more than 2 million violent crimes each year, including more than 100,000 cases of sexual assault and sexual abuse, it is quite reasonable that tens of thousands of these crimes involve coerced movement and detention (Crimes against Children Research Center, 1999). Finally, however, even phenomena that occur to tens of thousands of children are hard to estimate with surveys the size of those in NISMART–2. As a result, there is more imprecision and margin of error in the nonfamily abduction estimate than in any of the other NISMART–2 estimates.

The NISMART–2 findings reinforce the 1988 study's conclusion that teenage girls are the most frequent targets of nonfamily abductions and stereotypical kidnappings. To some extent, this finding contrasts with the image drawn from media accounts of the abduction of very young children such as Adam Walsh and Samantha Runnion. Perhaps the innocence and vulnerability of younger children ensure more publicity and greater notoriety for these cases. Nonetheless, in planning strategies for preventing and responding to nonfamily abductions, it is important to keep efforts from being misdirected by the stereotype of the preteen victim. In fact, the vulnerability of teens needs to be a central principle guiding such planning.

Strategies for prevention and intervention also need to recognize that acquaintances play a greater role than strangers do in abductions that occur outside the family. In the current study, more than half of the nonfamily abduction victims were abducted by persons known to the child. If parents and law enforcement assume that abduction is an element only in crimes committed by strangers, they may fail to provide appropriate prevention information to young people. More attention needs to be given to the motives and dynamics of crimes involving abductions by perpetrators known to the child.

The NISMART–2 results reinforce the generally well known fact that sexual assault is the motive for a considerable percentage of nonfamily abductions. This suggests the importance and usefulness of combining sexual assault prevention strategies and abduction prevention strategies as a way to reduce the rates of both crimes. Recent declines in rates of sexual abuse during the 1990s (Jones and Finkelhor, 2001) point to the possible effectiveness of recent sexual assault prevention strategies, including public awareness, educational programs, and aggressive prosecution to increase general and specific deterrence.

The considerable interest in statistics on nonfamily abduction raises obvious questions about how statistics can be obtained more regularly and systematically. Part of the solution to this problem may come with the full implementation of the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which is being introduced by the FBI to supplant the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) as the source of national information about crimes known to police. NIBRS, unlike its predecessor, allows police to indicate when abduction occurs alone or in connection with other crimes.

When NIBRS is fully implemented nationally, it will be able to generate annual estimates of the number of children, known to the police, who are abducted not only by nonfamily perpetrators but also by family members. Unfortunately, only 20 States contributed to NIBRS as of 2000, and its national implementation is unlikely to be complete for another decade. The analysis of these NIBRS data has already yielded some useful conclusions (Finkelhor and Ormrod, 2000), such as the large number and distinctive features of acquaintance kidnapping. However, the NIBRS data are not yet of use in calculating national incidence or tracking national trends.

One question pertaining to NIBRS in connection with child abduction data is how quickly police, who have not had to record the abduction element of crimes systematically under UCR, are going to do so in NIBRS data collection. An additional limitation of NIBRS is that it does not collect the kind of data that would facilitate estimating the incidence of stereotypical kidnapping, as defined by NISMART. To do this, NIBRS would have to collect more data on specific crime episode characteristics, such as the duration of the episode and the distance victims were taken.

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC), to which local police report missing children for whom they are searching, may present an opportunity to track the incidence of stereotypical kidnappings more regularly. At the present time, the NCIC system is not used for statistical or data-gathering purposes.

Finally, conducting studies such as those reported in this Bulletin on a more regular basis would enhance the availability of timely statistics on abducted and missing children.

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