Academic journal article Child Welfare

Attempted Non-Family Abductions

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Attempted Non-Family Abductions

Article excerpt

National estimates suggest that more than 100,000 children in the U.S. experience an attempted abduction by a non-family member each year. Most of those incidents befall young children--boys and girls ages four to 11--and, despite not being completed, cause both children and their parents significant alarm. The authors examined cases of attempted non-family abductions (ANFAs), identified in a national telephone survey of 10,367 households, to determine child and family characteristics that may serve as risk factors for such incidents. The prevalence and risk-marker findings from this study reinforce the need to continue teaching "stranger-danger" and suggest that children living in stressful or unstable family environments may be in particular need of such prevention efforts.

Although the crime of child abduction by strangers appears to frighten and preoccupy a great many children and their parents [Price & Desmond 1987], it has not been the subject of much social scientific research. Official criminal justice statistics and victimization studies have almost entirely neglected the subject [Finkelhor & Dziuba-Leatherman 1994]. This knowledge vacuum was perhaps one factor contributing to the controversies that erupted in the 1980s, when contradictory estimates were publicized about the magnitude and seriousness of the problem [Best 1988]. Some prominent persons, such as U.S. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, promoted the idea that over 50,000 children were abducted every year [Best 1990]. By contrast, two Denver-based journalists won a Pulitzer prize for a report claiming that only a few hundred cases could be documented [Griego & Kilzer 1985].

In part to try to resolve some of this controversy and also to better understand the problem, the U.S. Department of Justice commissioned the National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) [Finkelhor et al. 1990]. This study used both a national survey of law enforcement records and a national survey of households to try to develop an estimate of the number of actual and attempted non-family abductions (as the problem became defined, to contrast it with family abductions).

The NISMART report pointed out that some of the controversy over estimates was related to definitions, not actual numbers. The public stereotype of stranger-abduction was a very serious crime involving the lengthy removal of a child from his or her home for purposes such as ransom, sadistic and sexual assault, or murder. Such cases did not appear to be that common. By contrast, abduction as it was legally defined was a much broader crime. It could include the coercive movement of a person over even a small distance or the unlawful confinement of a person for a short period of time. Many violent crimes, particularly rapes, involve abductions as legally defined. There might indeed be thousands of such episodes.

From the survey of law enforcement agencies, NISMART concluded that indeed the number of stereotypical kidnappings occurring each year numbered only between 200 and 300. By contrast, the cases falling within the legal definition of abduction numbered 3,200 to 4,600. Moreover, because many sexual assaults that involve elements of abduction may never be reported to police, NISMART speculated that the actual number of legal definition abductions might be substantially higher.

The household survey completed in NISMART was in theory a way of estimating such unreported episodes, but even with a sample of 10,000 households containing children, too few episodes were uncovered to develop a reliable estimate. It was possible, however, to develop a reliable estimate of abduction attempts. Based on the NISMART household sample, it was estimated that 114,600 children (95% confidence interval: 79,900 to 149,400) had experienced an attempted non-family abduction in 1988, mostly from strangers in passing cars [Finkelhor et al. 1990].

On this basis of its findings, the NISMART report cautioned that the true risk of a successful stranger abduction was probably quite a bit lower than many parents may have thought. …

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