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Child Abductions: the Hype vs. the Reality

11-15-2009 National:

Are children more likely to be abducted today than they were in past generations?

It's a question every parent contemplates, especially in the age of 24-hour news, when sensationalized reports of missing children -- such as 7-year-old Somer Thompson's abduction and slaying -- seem to be a permanent fixture on television and computer screens. A look at the statistics, however, shows that America has become a safer place for kids over the past decade.

"More missing children come home today than at any time in our nation's history," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "And the total number of missing children has been on the decline over the past 10 years."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 980,712 people under the age of 18 were reported missing in 1997, compared to 643,744 in 2008.

Further distinguishing why and how children go missing is also very telling. A 2000 Justice Department study found that of the 800,000 kids who were reported missing that year, half turned out to be runaways.

And most abductions turned out to involve family members. Only 115 of all the cases reported were a version of the nightmare scenario that most troubles parents: abduction by a stranger.

"Most who prey upon children are known to the child," Allen said. "It's a matter of seduction, not abduction."

Paula S. Fass, professor of history at the University of California Berkeley and the author of "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America," agrees.

"The anxiety experienced by society is entirely disproportionate to the numbers of actual crimes committed," Fass said. Her book traces the evolution of kidnapping of children -- from largely a crime for ransom to that of sexual predation -- over the past century and a half.

"Unfortunately, we don't have good statistics so that we can say yes or no, we had a higher percentage of child abductions in the 1980s versus the 1880s," she said. "The FBI only started keeping those kinds of stats fairly recently."

Fass argues that the role media has played in publicizing child abduction murders has led to a cultural wave of anxiety. "Look at the popular culture -- movies, television, the news -- everybody has used and exploited abducted children," Fass said.

At the same time, experts said the media can help kids in danger.

"Media coverage does play a mostly positive role," said Cindy Rudometkin, response department director of The Polly Klaas Foundation. "The media often jumps on a story, publicizing it quickly, and that's often how children get found. It also puts this taboo topic out there, which provides an opportunity for parents to further discuss these matters with their kids."

Allen, Fass and Rudometkin agree that the line between preparedness and paranoia can be difficult to navigate.

"These horrific cases tend to paint the entire picture for the problem, but the total number of children abducted by a stranger has stayed consistent at around 150 each year," Allen said. "The message here isn't, we only have a low number of actual homicides, so parents don't have to worry. We want parents to be prepared, to take steps, but not to be paralyzed by fear."

Fass said it's important to put the overall numbers in perspective. "I tell people, you have a lot of things to worry about raising your kids. Kidnapping is way down on the list." ..Sub Source.. ..Original Source.. by David Knowles

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