A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How many kids are found as a result of missing-child posters?

July 5, 2002

Dear Cecil:

The other day while I was filling my car with gas, my daughter noticed one of those missing-children posters plastered above the pumps. She commented that she sees so many advertisements for missing kids, if she ever came across such children she'd never be able to associate their faces with the posters. I replied that it would be more likely she would recognize a missing child as a schoolmate or neighbor rather than someone encountered by pure chance on the street. Her comment got me to thinking about the success rate of the posters, though. How many children displayed in those posters have actually been found? Among those that have been found, how many have been "true" abductions, as opposed to disgruntled/estranged spouses/partners running off with their own children due to domestic disputes? In short, have the posters and milk cartons proved to be worthwhile in terms of recovering missing children?

Cecil replies:

I sense a couple of budding misconceptions here, Erik: (1) Most missing children are abducted by a parent during a custody dispute. (2) This is somehow OK.

Fact number one: A lot of children are abducted by noncustodial parents, but the largest category of missing children is runaways. (Or so the studies say — see below.) Fact number two: In most jurisdictions, abduction is a crime even if the perp's your pop.

But let's take a look at those studies. The one more or less official analysis of missing-kid statistics is the "National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children," prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice by David Finkelhor et al in 1990 based on data for 1988. NISMART provided the following estimates:

  • Runaways 450,700 kids took off without permission overnight, in 133,500 cases for parts unknown.
  • Lost, injured, or otherwise missing 438,200. Your basic lost-at-the-mall kids, for the most part.
  • Abducted by a family member, typically a parent in a custody dispute — 354,100 kids missing at least briefly. In 163,200 cases circumstances indicated the noncustodial parent intended to keep the child.
  • "Thrownaways" 127,100 kids split or were thrown out, and the family didn't want them back. In 59,200 cases the kid had no secure place to stay.
  • Nonfamily abductions 114,600 attempts, 3,200-4,600 actual.

You're thinking: 114,600 attempted kidnappings by Mr. Stranger Danger, of which only 3 to 4 percent succeed? I know, seemed fishy to me too. The more you look into it, the more you wonder about missing-kid statistics. About 725,000 missing juveniles were reported to the FBI by local police in 2001, but the great majority of such cases are resolved within hours. NISMART based its conclusions primarily on a survey of 10,000 households, supplemented by law-enforcement-record reviews and the like. A survey on such a hot-button subject has obvious limitations — one may reasonably ask, for example, whether the alleged 114,600 attempted nonfamily abductions are a real phenomenon or just an indication of parental paranoia. A couple of possibly relevant facts: (1) Stereotypical Elizabeth Smart-type kidnappings — which may involve ransom notes, violence, and so on — account for a few hundred cases per year. (2) In 1994 Canada reported 400 parental abductions per year, versus NISMART's 350,000 in the U.S. Even accounting for differences in population, reporting methodology, mobility, etc, such a huge disparity gives one pause.

The people who publish missing-kid pictures on posters, postcards, etc., contend they're doing some good. (Milk-carton programs have largely ended — too upsetting at breakfast.) The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which coordinates missing-kid photo distribution with several hundred corporate and other partners, says it has released pictures of 8,204 kids since the program began in 1985; of this number, NCMEC caseworkers have established that 1,435 kids were found as a direct result. One NCMEC photo partner, the direct-mail firm ADVO, says 116 kids have been found as a result of its "Have You Seen Me?" mailings — a seemingly small number, considering that the mailings reach upward of 80 million households, but until a couple of years ago ADVO featured only one child per week.

Missing-kid photo programs are mostly privately funded, so whatever may be said about them from a cost-benefit standpoint, the money isn't coming out of your pocket. Still, it's frustrating that we don't really have a good handle on how serious the problem is in the first place. An updated NISMART report is due out soon; maybe we'll have a better idea then.

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