Myths about Child Abduction

One category of missing children are children who have been abducted. Here are some myths I’ve found that some people hold about abducted children, and some facts to set the record straight.

Strangers are the main culprit

Strangers are not at all the main culprit of child abduction. The media are more likely to cover cases of stranger abduction, but in the majority of cases, the child knows the abductor. About half of abductors are in the child’s family, and 27% of abductors are acquaintances of the child. Offenders are vastly more likely to be male (92%). The child is most likely to be abducted from home.

If a child is abducted by a parent, it can lead to a lot of relationship complexity. The child may feel love for and loved by their parent, but also betrayed. In some cases, abducted children are actually lied to about the parent who has been left behind. In one case study, a boy was told by his abductor father that his mother had actually died:

Imagine this: You were told that your mother is dead. You’ve lived for years without her in your life. One day someone takes you from your father and puts you in an unfamiliar place and this woman walks in. She looks uncannily like what you remember of your mother but she is older . . . and your mother is dead.

Abductions lead to homicides

Abductions can lead to homicides, but most don’t. About 44% of all child abductions do not involve the presence of a weapon, and even fewer family abductions will involve one. Minor injuries occurred in less than 13% of all abductions (and again, the proportion is even lower for family abductions). There were very few major injuries, and in a study of 177,115 cases, there were a total of 28 murders – we’re talking about the vast, vast minority.

Parental abduction is really a child custody dispute

Parental abduction is illegal and a far more devastating matter than a custody dispute. The parent who has been left behind may not know where their child is and if they’re safe.

There can be some legal complexities. For instance, if a parent takes a child out of the home to escape an abusive situation. This is a completely different matter, but also far more serious than a custody dispute.

The streets are unsafe for children

What’s ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ is pretty tricky to define. There have been some really disturbing, high-profile cases of missing/abducted children such as Etan Patz, Madeline McCann, Jaidyn Leskie, and many others that I couldn’t blame parents for feeling apprehensive about their child’s safety. I am not a parent, so I take a more statistical view.

In the US, where the homicide rate is relatively high, about 3% of homicides against children under 5 were committed by strangers. Most (60%) were committed by parents. The rest were committed by known acquaintances and relatives. Each year, there are about 115 reports of child abduction (of under 18s) which meet your stereotypical image of what that entails: a stranger snatching a child while their parents weren’t looking.

It’s not zero. There is some risk. But to put it into perspective, 9000 children (under 12) die in road accidents in the US each year. Statistically speaking, you shouldn’t let kids ride in cars or be anywhere near them, because road accidents are one of the main causes of death for children (and, in fact, people generally).

“Society” is too paranoid about child safety

I often also hear the opposite attitude, that you should just let kids play and do whatever and they’ll be happier and better off, like in the good ol’ days. I don’t feel strongly about this sentiment either way, but I’d put in a caveat: it’s a good idea to teach kids about “stranger danger”. This might sound a little odd given that I wrote above that strangers aren’t the main cause of abduction. However, it turns out that stranger danger programs can actually be really effective at preventing abductions. Here’s a quote from a UK study published last year:

When a child is targeted by a stranger abductor, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will in fact be abducted. Recent findings analysing stranger child abduction in the UK have revealed that up to 75% of stranger child abductions are attempted cases where the child is not abducted … These findings suggests that even when a child is taken or detained by a stranger, there is still an opportunity for the child to escape, thereby preventing or avoiding further physical harm.

And:

Simply saying ‘no’ to the offender promoted desistance 80% of the time and prevented escalation where abduction had occurred at the same rate… Calling for help was even more effective, with every case in the sample being resisted.

The study concluded that these results showed that education about how to resist abduction (though they note that doing so is not always possible) could be very effective in the very low chance that a stranger does try to abduct a child.

Further, teaching kids to recognise when they feel unsafe and to act on those feelings (whether it be to tell a trusted adult, run away, or otherwise) seems like a good strategy to help mitigate some of the risks they face. This is not just about abduction, but also other risks like bullying, grooming, and abuse. It also tends to run contrarily to the way kids are treated generally. For instance, their fears are often dismissed as silly stories, they’re often told to be quiet, they’re often forced to hug and/or kiss people they may not know well or even like, and so on. Their voice and bodily autonomy are undermined every day. This might often be necessary (unless you want to be buying ice-cream for dinner or swatting ghosts out of their closet), but it’s important for them to know that their discomfort could be a valuable warning.

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