350,000 Abductions by Family Members Documented

By Debra Viadero — May 16, 1990 3 min read

Washington--The first national study of missing children has revealed that a surprisingly high number of children are abducted each year by members of their own families.

According to the study, released by the Justice Department this month, about 350,000 abductions of children by family members occur each year. Most often, they arise out of conflicts engendered by bitter divorces and custody fights.

The number of such abductions is more than three times higher than previous estimates.

By contrast, the number of children abducted by strangers was found to be significantly lower: between 200 and 300 a year.

Researchers said those figures, representing some of the most startling findings of the comprehensive, three-year study, shatter popular misconceptions about the nature and scope of the nation’s missing-children problem.

“People would say there are 50,000 missing children in this country, and the public would hear that as 50,000 Adam Walshes or Melissa Brannens,” said the study’s co-author, Andrea Sedlak, referring to two nationally publicized cases.

Five-year-old Melissa Brannen disappeared from a party at her Washington-area apartment complex last year--taken, apparently, by a stranger--and has not been found. Adam Walsh, a Florida 6-year-old who was found murdered after being abducted from a store by a drifter, was the inspiration for a television drama and the public drive that culminated in the creation of national center on missing children.

The perception that all missing children fit this pattern “has done a lot of damage because there are different ways of dealing with these very different problems,” said Ms. Sedlak, a social pyschologist and senior study director at Westat Inc. here.

She wrote the report with David Finkelhor, research scientist and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, and Gerald T. Hotaling, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts.

Fears that a growing number of children were being abducted by strangers had led the Congress to mandate the study as part of the 1984 Missing Children Act.

The bulk of the $1.6-million study consisted of telephone surveys of 10,544 care-givers, conducted from January 1988 to January 1989. The researchers also surveyed juvenile facilities, studied police records, and re-analyzed 12 years of Federal Bureau of Investigation homicide data.

Taken by Parent

In 81 percent of the family abductions, they found, the children had been taken by a natural parent. Most family-abducted children were back home in two days to a week, with 10 percent being held for more than a month. Sexual assault, one of the most feared aspects of any abduction, occurred in only 1 percent of the family-abduction cases.

About 46 percent of the family abductions fell into the most serious category, in which the child’s whereabouts were concealed, he or she was taken out of state, or there was evidence the abductor intended to keep the child indefinitely.

The researchers concluded that the missing-children problem is reallyfive distinct problems. Besides family abductions, it includes abductions by strangers, children who run away from home, “thrown-away” children, and those who are lost, injured, or otherwise missing.

In addition to the estimated 200 to 300 children kidnapped each year by strangers, the report estimates that, in 1988, 3,200 to 4,600 children were lured away for brief periods of time by strangers or other nonfamily members. Most often, these episodes lasted less than a day and involved teenagers or younger girls who were sexually assaulted.

Ms. Sedlak noted as equally disturbing the fact that an estimated 114,600 more abductions were attempted by nonfamily members.

An estimated 450,700 children ran away from home over the survey period, constituting the largest category of missing children. Fewer than a third of those children did not have “a secure and familiar place to stay” during some portion of those episodes, according to the report.

Another 127,100 children were estimated to have been “thrown away,” meaning their parents had either abandoned them, thrown them out of the house following an argument, or made no attempt to recover them after they had run away.

Finally, 438,200 children were described as “lost, injured, or otherwise missing.” In many of these instances, the researchers said, the children had either lost track of the time or misunderstood when they were expected to come back home.

Copies of the report, “Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America,” may be obtained from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, Box 6000, Rockville, Md. 20820. The telephone numbers are: (800) 251-5139, or (301) 251-5139 for residents of Maryland and metropolitan Washington.

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1990 edition of Education Week as 350,000 Abductions by Family Members Documented