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Child Victims of Stereotypical Kidnappings Known to Law Enforcement in 2011
By Janis Wolak, J.D., David Finkelhor, Ph.D., Andrea J. Sedlak, Ph.D, OJJDP
Published: 10/03/2016


The following has been reprinted from a June 2016 bulletin published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.


This bulletin summarizes findings on the incidence and characteristics of stereotypical kidnappings of children in 2011 and compares them with 1997 findings. The key findings include the following:
  • An estimated 105 children were victims of stereotypical kidnappings in 2011, virtually the same as the 1997 estimate. Most kidnappings involved the use of force or threats, and about three in five victims were sexually assaulted, abused, or exploited.
  • Victims were, most commonly, ages 12 to 17, girls, white, and living in situations other than with two biological or adoptive parents. Half of all stereotypical kidnappings in 2011 were sexually motivated crimes against adolescent girls.
  • Most perpetrators of 2011 stereotypical kidnappings were male, were ages 18 to 35, and were white or black in equal proportions. About 70 percent were unemployed, and roughly half had problems with drugs or alcohol.
  • Fewer stereotypical kidnappings ended in homicide in 2011 than in 1997 (8 percent versus 40 percent). Most kidnappers were not violent at first contact with victims; instead, they lured almost 70 percent of victims through deception or nonthreatening pretexts. Kidnappings involving 92 percent of child victims in 2011 ended in recovering the child alive, compared with 57 percent of victims in 1997.
  • 2011 estimates of child victims being detained overnight were three times the 1997 estimates (80 percent versus 26 percent).
  • Technologies, such as cell phones and the Internet, helped law enforcement to solve crimes involving two-thirds of the victims.
The findings reported in this bulletin are from the law enforcement component of the Third National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART–3), sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The NISMART research program was undertaken in response to the mandate of the 1984 Missing Children’s Assistance Act (Pub. L. 98–473), which requires OJJDP to periodically conduct national incidence studies to determine, for a given year, the actual number of children who are reported missing, abducted by strangers, or kidnapped by a parent as well as the number of children who are recovered. (The Act was amended in 2013 to require such incidence studies to be conducted triennially [Pub. L. 113–38].)

Conceptualizing the Problem

The terms “child abduction” and “kidnapping” bring to mind notorious crimes that have been the focus of public attention, such as the kidnappings of Etan Patz, Adam Walsh, Polly Klass, Shawn Hornbeck, Elizabeth Smart, or of Michelle Wright, Amanda Berry, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus, who escaped from captivity in 2013. All of these crimes involved a substantial duration or distance and life- threatening circumstances. Some of the children were killed; others suffered extreme forms of abuse. Strangers committed most of these infamous crimes, but some perpetrators were persons whom the children or their families knew slightly. For example, the perpetrator in the Elizabeth Smart case had worked briefly for her family, and Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus knew their kidnapper slightly through interactions with his children.

In the criminal justice system, abduction means something much broader than the circumstances of these dramatic crimes. Abductions can occur when a child is moved even a short distance, detained for even a modest amount of time, or taken or held by someone who has no legal right to custody. These types of child abductions often occur in the context of family disputes over child custody or during the commission of other crimes. For example, a situation in which a parent deliberately keeps a child beyond the time allowed for visitation in violation of a custody order would meet the statutory definition of abduction in most states, as would crimes in which a child is detained on the street at gunpoint and robbed or lured into a neighbor’s home and sexually assaulted. However, estimates that include these types of abductions would not satisfy the need to know how many children experience the very serious crimes that the public thinks of as kidnappings, which involve lengthy detentions, movement over long distances, homicides, or motives such as ransom or stealing a child to keep as one’s own.

The NISMART research program was created in the 1980s to establish clear definitions and provide scientifically based estimates of abducted children and children missing for other reasons. NISMART–1 defined major types of missing child episodes and examined the numbers of children who experienced each type in 1988 (Asdigian, Finkelhor, and Hotaling, 1995).

In particular, NISMART–1 defined stereotypical kidnappings to identify the most serious child abductions as those perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance in which a child was moved at least 20 feet or held for at least 1 hour, and one or more of the following occurred: The child was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with intent to keep permanently, or killed. NISMART–1 used a Police Records Study to collect data about stereotypical kidnappings and other nonfamily child abductions (Finkelhor, Hotaling, and Sedlak, 1990). However, the Police Records Study entailed costly methodology with uncertain coverage of the population of interest, identified only a handful of stereotypical kidnapping cases, and yielded imprecise estimates—all of which prompted the researchers to redesign the methodology.

NISMART–2, conducted in the late 1990s, instituted the Law Enforcement Survey methodology to collect data about stereotypical kidnappings from a national sample of law enforcement agencies. It used a two-stage methodology that ensured effective national coverage of these abductions, efficiently located the cases and their data sources, and efficiently obtained substantial details about the cases in interviews with the investigating officers. Further, NISMART–2 determined that stereotypical kidnappings were quite rare. An estimated 115 incidents occurred nationwide in 1997, although the confidence interval for this estimate was wide relative to the size of the estimate itself, which is common for estimates of rare phenomena (Finkelhor, Hammer, and Sedlak, 2002). The findings also demonstrated the efficiency of the new methodology, since the number of cases in the sample was about half of the estimated national total. The Third National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART–3) replicates the Law Enforcement Survey methodology used in NISMART–2.

It is important to clarify that a child who is stereotypically kidnapped is not necessarily a missing child, although many of these episodes do involve children missing for lengthy periods of time. For example, a child can be abducted on the way home from school, dragged into a remote area, sexually assaulted, and killed without being missed by a caretaker or reported as missing to any law enforcement agency. The discovery of the child’s body may be the first evidence of the episode. Thus, the researchers make a distinction between the child victims of stereotypical kidnappings who were missing and those who were not.

Estimated Number of Child Victims of 2011 Stereotypical Kidnappings

Based on the Law Enforcement Survey conducted as part of NISMART–3, an estimated 105 children were kidnapped by strangers or slight acquaintances in the year between October 1, 2010, and September 30, 2011, in cases investigated by law enforcement that met the criteria of “stereotypical kidnapping” (table 1, page 4). This estimate includes episodes in which a child was moved at least 20 feet or held for at least 1 hour and, additionally, taken or detained overnight, transported a distance of 50 or more miles, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed. (Both this estimate and the estimate for 1997 are rounded to the nearest multiple of 5 to avoid conveying a false sense of precision.)

Trend since 1997

The estimate of child victims of stereotypical kidnapping in 2011 may appear to be slightly lower than the estimate of 115 in 1997, but the estimates are too similar to suggest an actual decrease in victims in 2011. Both estimates have a “95-percent confidence interval” (95% CI), which is the range of numbers within which the estimate is likely to fall in 95 out of 100 attempts to estimate it using identical methodology. The 2011 estimate of victims was 105 (95% CI = 40–165) and the 1997 estimate was 115 (95% CI = 55–170). Because the confidence intervals from 2011 and 1997 overlap substantially, and both ranges include the other study’s estimate, the 1997 and 2011 estimates are statistically equivalent. The most one can say is that the two estimates are about the same.

Although the estimated number of victims was very similar in 1997 and 2011, case outcomes for victims appear to have improved. Eight percent of stereotypically kidnapped children in 2011 were killed, compared to 40 percent in 1997. Cases involving 92 percent of the victims in 2011 ended with the child recovered alive, compared to 57 percent in 1997. In both years, about the same proportion of victims suffered the use of force or threats by perpetrators, sexual assaults, ransom demands, or intentions by perpetrators to keep a child as their own, or they were taken 50 miles or more. However, more children were detained overnight in 2011 than in 1997 (80 percent compared to 26 percent). NISMART defines “overnight” as detainments of an hour or more between 12 midnight and 5:00 a.m.

To view the full report click here.

This bulletin was written by Janis Wolak, J.D., Senior Researcher, Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire; David Finkelhor, Ph.D., Director, Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire; and Andrea J. Sedlak, Ph.D., Vice President, Westat and the Rockville Institute.


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