Nonfamily Child Abductions Essay

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Although media attention tends to focus on the most sensational and tragic child kidnappings, child abduction is legally defined as a child being held involuntarily for a modest amount of time or moved even a short distance. In an attempt to address the variation in the severity of nonfamily abductions, the Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-2) distinguished stereotypical kidnapping as a subcategory of nonfamily abduction.

A stereotypical kidnapping is an abduction perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. According to the most recent national incidence estimates available, the NISMART-2 estimates for 1999, 115 children were victims of a stereotypical kidnapping nationwide, and these children account for only 19% of the 58,200 children who were identified as victims of a nonfamily abduction based on the legal definition. Among the children identified as victims of nonfamily abduction, 57% qualified as missing, and 21% were reported to authorities as missing.

Overall, nonfamily abducted children accounted for only 3% of all missing children and 2% of those reported missing to law enforcement. Although police were contacted regarding 47% of all nonfamily abducted children, less than half (44%) of these contacts were to locate a missing child; 21% were to recover a child from a known location, and 35% were for other reasons including the reporting of another related crime such as a sexual assault.

Teenage girls were by far the most frequent victims of both stereotypical kidnappings and nonfamily abductions, and nearly half of all victims were sexually assaulted by the perpetrator. Contrary to the widely held belief that strangers pose the greatest danger, less than half (45%) of all nonfamily abduction victims were abducted by a stranger or slight acquaintance. Thirty-eight percent were abducted by a friend or long-term acquaintance, and an additional 18% were abducted by neighbors, caretakers or babysitters, and others.

Whereas 99% of all nonfamily abducted children were returned home alive, the outcomes change dramatically when one looks only at the subgroup of stereotypical kidnapped children. Sadly, only 57% of these children were returned home alive, and among those returned, 32% were injured. Forty percent of the stereotypical kidnapping victims were killed, and an additional 4% were neither returned nor located.

Strategies for prevention and intervention need to recognize that acquaintances play a greater role than strangers do in abductions that occur outside the family. If parents and law enforcement assume that abductions are only or mostly committed by strangers, they may fail to provide appropriate prevention information to young people.


  1. Finkelhor, D., Hammer, H., & Sedlak, A. J. (2002). Nonfamily abducted children: National estimates and characteristics. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Bulletin Series. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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