Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

My Baby is Missing!

The Abduction Story: Nismart

Obtaining an accurate and unambiguous picture of the missing child problem in America is difficult. The complexities of the issue are derived from the changing definition of what actually constitutes a missing or abducted child. Missing is a term that is widely used in law enforcement and if a child is missing under virtually any conditions, even if the circumstances are simply a misunderstanding of where the child should be, that incident is counted as a missing child. Parental abductions, which constitute the overwhelming majority of abducted juveniles are, statistically, not as physically harmful to the victim as stranger abductions. Parents in those situations are usually involved in a custodial feud with their spouses. The most serious type of abductions, which are classified as stereotypical kidnappings, are the rarest and, according to available research, the most dangerous. Over 40 percent of these incidents end with the childs death.

In an effort to define the missing child problem, the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, known as NISMART, initiated a massive research project in 1988. A more recent updated survey was conducted in 1999 and is known as NISMART 2. The data discussed in this article will focus on the NISMART 2 project. Sponsored by the Department of Justice and using facts collected in over 16,000 interviews across the United States, NISMART 2 is the most up to date reliable database on missing children available. In compiling the national data, NISMART expanded the collected information to reflect the population as a whole.

U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Department of Justice

There are three major definitions used in the data to describe the varying circumstances of child abduction. The first is called a non-family abduction. NISMART 2 describes this event when a non-family perpetrator takes a child by the use of physical force or threat or detains a child for at least 1 hour in an isolated place without lawful authority. NISMART defines a stereotypical kidnapping when a stranger or slight acquaintance perpetrates a non-family abduction in which the child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom, abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. A family abduction occurs when in violation of a custody order a member of the childs family takes or fails to return a child and the child is concealed or transported out of State with the intent to prevent contact.

According to the NISMART survey, more than 203,900 children are abducted by a family member in America each year. The majority of these are abducted by one of their parents during a custodial dispute. These types of incidents usually end with the child returned to the rightful parent and the offender charged with custodial-related offenses. About 46 percent were gone for less than a week. About 21 percent were gone for more than a month. Only 6 percent were not returned to the rightful parent. On occasion, the offender can be charged with kidnapping. Parents who abduct their own children are not usually motivated by violence nor do they have profit as a goal. These incidents are driven by hostility between parents with the innocent child caught in the middle.

During the time period studied in the survey, NISMART estimated that 58,200 children were victimized in non-family abductions. This figure is an estimate only and NISMART warns that this number could be exaggerated since it was based on a small sample. In these abductions, 53 percent were committed by persons known to the victim, such as a friend, neighbor or a babysitter. About 75 percent of the perpetrators of non-family abductions are male. The victim most often (81%) was between the ages of 12 and 17 and most often (65%) female. In a finding that conforms with public perception, NISMART found that 71 percent of these abductions occurred outdoors such as the street, park, a car or in a wooded area. Less than 5 percent took place in the victims own home or yard. The motivations for these abductions were a physical or sexual assault in 77 percent of the cases. The duration of the crime was less than 24 hours in 90 percent of the cases and the child was returned alive 99 percent of the time.

The data on stereotypical kidnapping, which is widely reported in the media and the kind that terrifies parents everywhere, is much more disturbing.

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