Data Missing on Missing Children: Despite Intensive Media Coverage, Authorities Insist That No Child-Abduction Epidemic Exists. Yet Statistics Prove Unreliable. So Just How Safe Are America's Kids? (Nation: Child Abduction)

Article excerpt

By now the stories are all too familiar. A child is missing: vanished from the family's back yard, snatched from the bus stop or stolen from his or her own bedroom. The pictures on the evening news have become a ghostly reminder of childhood lost. These stories are heartbreaking for everyone; parents' grief is all but unbearable.

Meanwhile, across the nation, parents fear their child could be next. Justice Department research indicates the risk of abduction by a stranger is relatively low for preschoolers, but increases through elementary school and peaks at age 15. Teen-age girls are considered most vulnerable.

Frightened parents wonder how the society in which they are raising families got this way. Some blame the media for reporting these cases. The FBI charged that reporters were distorting the facts with fear-driven stories about monsters preying on children.

For the media, it started out innocently enough. With no juicy summer sex scandal such as the Chandra Levy or Gary Condit cases to sell papers or build ratings, reporters slowly dissected the tragic kidnapping and murder of Danielle van Dam in San Diego. That story consumed the national press until 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was snatched from her bedroom in Utah, seizing the attention of the electronic media and making still more headlines. That case seemed to strike fear into the heart of every parent of a beautiful child.

The coverage of child-snatching became even more intense when 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was dragged from her driveway. Samantha's body was discovered after the perpetrator had raped her and discarded her remains a short distance from her home. By now the fear had become a runaway train as new cases were reported in headlines from Philadelphia to Milwaukee.

Writing for Time magazine, Walter Kern put it bluntly: "One wonders if the abduction reports are a runaway habit whose internal momentum can get the best of reporters and editors, flattening everything else that lies before it: stories of war and preparations for war, of corruption among the elites, of floods and droughts. What, no kidnapped kids this morning? Well, find some!"

Many welcome the coverage. Curtis S. Lavarello, executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers, says: "For critics who claim that copycats may arise as a result of media coverage, I would counter that in all reality, for every case of a possible copycat case, there are most likely hundreds, if not thousands, of parents doing a better job of supervising their children."

The FBI, in fact, insists that child abductions by strangers actually have declined. In the 1980s the number of such child abductions averaged annually about 200 to 300, according to the FBI. In 2000, the number of cases dropped to 93 compared with 134 in 1999 and 115 in 1998, when the FBI first began tracking these statistics.

But that may not be an accurate assessment. Neal Rawls, a security consultant in Palm Beach, Fla., and author of Be Alert, Be Aware, Have a Plan: The Complete Guide to Protecting Yourself Your Home, Your Family, calls the FBI statistics misleading. "OSHA reports workplace accidents better than the government tracks missing kids," he says.

Rawls contends no one can say for certain if there has been an increase or decrease in the number of missing-kids cases because everyone defines kidnapping differently. "Is luring someone into a house, and then releasing them, considered kidnapping?" he wonders. If so, consider this: One out of seven people who are sexually assaulted is a child younger than age 6, and 67 percent of sexual-assault victims are children. That, he says, indicates a problem bigger than the FBI admits.

According to Rawls, if a child is lured by a stranger and then sexually assaulted and released, the FBI downplays the crime by boasting that most of these missing kids are returned. …