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Missing Children

bulletIn 1998, 932,190 missing persons (adults and juveniles) were reported to the police and entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center. The FBI estimates that 85% - 90% of missing persons are juveniles; therefore, approximately 800,000 cases of missing children (or 2,200 children per day) were reported in 1998 (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1999).
bulletThere are 1.3 million runaway and homeless youth in the United States (National Runaway Switchboard, 1999).


The term missing children is defined as "children whose whereabouts are unknown to their parent, guardian, or legal custodian."(1)


Missing children includes two categories: children who have been taken, and those who have left. These two categories can be broken down into five different sub-categories: non-family abductions; family abductions; runaways; throwaways; and lost, injured, or otherwise missing.

Increasing legislative efforts, specialized training for criminal justice professionals, along with the establishment of non-profit organizations, reflects the country's profound concern about the issue of missing children. However, despite the many legal and programmatic changes that have and continue to be effected, the issue of missing children is still one that rides heavily upon the minds of parents and concerned citizens throughout the nation.

Non-Family Abductions

This category of abduction is referred to as "non-family" rather than "stranger" because like many crimes committed against individuals, the offender is usually someone known to the victim.

Kidnapping of a child by a non-family member is often perceived as the most common type of child abduction, however this is a misconception. While these types of abductions receive the most media attention and often become higher-profile cases, abductions by a non-family member actually account for the smallest percentage of missing children.

Teenagers and girls tend to be the most common victims of non-family abductions, but infants also can be at risk. Although few infants are abducted, they are most often taken from their homes or hospital nurseries by someone who is childless or has recently lost a child.

The risk of other crimes being committed against the missing child increases with non-family abductions. Homicide, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, pornography, and prostitution are among the most common crimes perpetrated against missing children.

Although the least prevalent category of missing children, non-family abductions have an overwhelming impact on the parents of abducted children. Often, these scenarios are accompanied by feelings of extreme fear, isolation, desperation, confusion and guilt. Under these circumstances, it is essential that parents notify the police immediately after realizing a child has been missing in order to activate resources available to them through the criminal justice system and the community.

Family Abductions

Abductions of children by a family member occur almost exclusively in instances of divorce, and when all lines of communication between two parents fail. This type of kidnapping is usually a reaction to dissatisfaction with a custody or visitation agreement. It is considered kidnapping once the abductor violates the custody or visitation agreement, regardless of the specific circumstances. For instance, family abductions range from the non-custodial parent keeping children overnight, to transporting the children out-of-state.

Belief that a child is safe when abducted by a parent or family member is the greatest misconception surrounding family abductions. Although reported instances of physical and sexual abuse are low in family abduction scenarios, studies show emotional trauma in children can be significant. In the past few years, all 50 states have enacted criminal statutes pertaining to parental kidnapping.

Most abductions of children by a family member occur during visitation exchanges or at the end of school vacations. Often, the issue is not the children's whereabouts, but how to return them to the primary custodial parent.

Parents and caregivers looking for children should contact local and federal law enforcement immediately. Hiring a private detective, searching through school records, and alerting the media can be helpful in searching for a child abducted by a family member.


Runaways constitute the majority of missing children. Often they are considered delinquents, rebels, and troublemakers. However, these children are usually not running to something, but rather away from a situation which they feel is intolerable. What is important to remember is that runaways do not represent short-term crises. Long-term physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse are common in runaway cases, and simply returning a runaway to his or her home may not be an appropriate resolution. Both the child and family may need to receive professional support and counseling before a possible reunion.

Parents and caregivers searching for children who have run away should contact the police immediately. Friends of the runaway child should also be contacted, as they may be able to offer parents and authorities information on the whereabouts of the child. If a runaway child seeks shelter, many shelters mandate that a child contact their parents upon arrival.


More than half of the children who are classified as runaways could be described more accurately as throwaways. Children who are considered "throwaways" are abandoned, told to leave by a caregiver, or are not allowed to return home once they have left. Many throwaways come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In comparison to children who have run away, throwaway children are twice as likely to have experienced domestic violence in the home.(2)

The total number of throwaway children is impossible to estimate. They surface frequently in juvenile detention centers or among the homeless. Often, the only way these children can be accounted for is through shelters where they seek help, as they are rarely reported as missing by parents or caregivers.

Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing

The final sub-category of missing children that do not fit into any of the other four categories are the lost, injured, or otherwise missing children. Generally, children are included in this category if there is insufficient evidence to classify them in one of the previous groupings. Children who are hurt, lost, or confused and did not return home when they were expected are not necessarily considered runaway, throwaway, or abduction cases if the circumstances surrounding the disappearance are unclear.

Nearly half of the children in this category are below age five. It is important to note that this group of children suffer the most physical harm compared to every other category, except those children abducted by strangers.(3) Much like children in other categories, the police and FBI should be contacted immediately, as these children run the risk of serious harm the longer they are away from their homes.


Parents and caregivers should develop specific strategies with their children that foster home safety. The Vanished Children's Alliance recommends that parents and children learn and practice life-saving measures together. Some of the Alliance's recommendations include:
bulletNever leave your children unattended;
bulletChildren and caregivers should agree upon and use a "family code word". Caregivers should teach children not to leave with anybody who doesn't know the code, even if the child knows the person;
bulletChildren's names should not be put on their personal belongings. By de-personalizing articles, parents and caregivers make it much more difficult for an abductor to befriend a child by calling him or her by name;
bulletChildren should never open doors, or answer the telephone when they are home by themselves; and,
bulletChildren should understand they can say "no" to adults if they feel uncomfortable.

For more information on child safety, please refer to the FYI bulletins entitled, Safety Tips for Parents and Safety Tips for Children.

In addition to its safety strategies, The Vanished Children's Alliance also specifies these techniques that parents and caregivers can use to become more aware of their children's safety.
bulletBe concerned if any other adult showers a child with presents or money.
bulletBe aware of a child's whereabouts, friends, and where those friends live.
bulletIn the case of separation or divorce, maintain parental communication and be aware of any changes in the ex-partners' attitude that could indicate the potential for family abduction.

Parents and caregivers can also take measures to ensure that if a child is ever abducted, specific identifying information about the child is on hand for the authorities. For example, keeping recent photos (photographs should be taken of children every six months and more often for very young children); recording birthmarks, scars and other identifying marks; and noting what a child wears daily will aid investigators in the search for missing children.

For children who have runaway, are considered throwaway, or are otherwise missing, better communication and family counseling can help prevent future instances of children leaving home. Most cases involving missing children need specific and long-term professional intervention and assistance.

What to do if a Child is Missing

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) outlines several necessary considerations in "When Your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide," including:
bulletParents and caregivers should report a child's disappearance immediately. The less time lapsed between when the child is missing and when a search begins, the better the chance for recovery.
bulletAccess to the home, abduction site or crime scene should be limited until all evidence has been collected by law enforcement officials.
bulletParents and caregivers should give as much information as possible to law enforcement investigators. A list of family friends, the child's friends, favorite playground, etc. are all important details, no matter how insignificant they may seem.
bulletA recent photo of a missing child can be an important aid in the search and recovery. Photographs are reported to be of more service than fingerprints or dental records.
bulletParents and caregivers should try to maintain personal health and energy by: eating and sleeping; finding time for physical exercise; resisting self-blame or shouldering the blame of others; and seeking professional counseling for themselves and the siblings of a missing child.

In addition to these suggestions, parents should obtain: Caller ID or ask law enforcement to place a "tap" on phones in order to trace possible extortion attempts; call waiting, a cellular phone and a pager so parents may be reached at all times; and assistance from a victim service professional who has expertise in missing children advocacy for suggestions on how to engage and maintain media interest and involvement.

Community and Government Resources

Taking action the first 48 hours after a child is missing is crucial. In addition to calling the police, there are other resources available to parents and caregivers faced with a child's disappearance. Government agencies, non-profit organizations, parent survivor groups, and local businesses are some of the many resources that can provide assistance and support to parents and caregivers.

Government agencies such as the FBI, can aid in the search and recovery of missing children by providing support and services to local law enforcement. For instance, the Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit of the FBI is categorized as a rapid response team that can provide technical assistance to local law enforcement to assist in investigating missing children cases. Parents and caregivers should ask local law enforcement to engage the resources of the FBI as soon as possible after learning of the abduction or disappearance of their child.

Missing children's clearinghouses are run by state governments and are connected with law enforcement agencies. These clearinghouses will often aid in the search for a missing child and can provide assistance in photo dissemination. Clearinghouse services vary state by state and should be contacted directly to find out exactly what type of assistance they offer in a particular jurisdiction.

Non-profit organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, offer a variety of support and information to families of missing children free of charge. Photo dissemination, legal advocacy, broadcast faxes to criminal justice agencies, and other technical assistance to local law enforcement, are some of the many services that these agencies provide. Child Quest International provides free support, 24 hours a day, to families coping with children who have run away or have been abducted. Several organizations, like Child Find of America, focus on attracting media attention and public awareness.

Parent survivor groups offer a means of support that can be helpful to many people when confronted with the loss of a child. Usually, these groups include those who have been through similar situations involving missing children. Often, they can provide counseling, support and valuable advice.

Local businesses can help in missing children cases as well. Many community-based merchants and businesses will allow parents to display photos of missing children in store-front windows, in restrooms, on doors, etc. The more places a child's picture can be seen, the greater the chance that child may be found.


There are a variety of ways that children become "missing." For families confronted with the disappearance of a child, the process of finding that child is overwhelming; however immediate action should be taken. Parents and caregivers should reach out as soon as possible to the available resources which may assist in the search for their child. If a child is recovered, counseling for the entire family can be helpful.

The issues surrounding missing children continue to challenge law enforcement, private and non-profit agencies as they educate and inform parents, children, and the public. In order to reduce the threat of child abduction, neglect and abuse, crimes against children must be stopped before they start.


1. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (1985, March). Parental Kidnapping- How to Prevent an Abduction and What to Do If Your Child Is Abducted. Arlington, VA.

2. Sweet, Robert W., Jr. (1990, November/December). "'Missing Children': Found Faces." Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

3. Finkelhor, David, Gerald Hotaling and Andrea Sedlak. (1990). Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America, First Report: Numbers and Characteristics-National Incidence Studies, Executive Summary. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.


National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (1999). 1998 Missing Children Statistics Fact Sheet. Arlington, VA: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

National Runaway Switchboard. (1999). Frontline: The Newsletter for the National Runaway Switchboard. Chicago, IL: National Runaway Switchboard.


Forst, Martin L., and Martha-Elin Blomquist. (1991). Missing Children; Rhetoric and Reality. New York, NY: Lexington Books.

Greif, Geoffrey L., and Rebecca L. Hegar. (1993). When Parents Kidnap; The Families Behind the Headlines. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Janus, Mark-David, Arlene McCormack, Ann Wolbert Burgess, and Carol Hartman. (1987). Adolescent Runaways; Causes and Consequences. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (1998). When your Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

U.S. Attorney General's Advisory Board on Missing Children. (1986). America's Missing and Exploited Children: Their Safety and Their Future. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

For additional information, please contact:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

(800) THE-LOST ((800) 843-5678)
(800) 826-7653 (TTY) or (703) 235-3900
Cyber tipline:

Child Find of America

(800) I-AM-LOST ((800) 426-5678)
(914) 255-1848

Child Quest International

(800) 248-8020
(408) 287-4673

Missing and Exploited Children's Program
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

(202) 616-3637
(202) 307-2819(fax)

Vanished Children's Alliance

(408) 296-1113
(408) 296-1117 (fax)

Special thanks to the following for their editorial input:

Mylo Carbia-Puig, Director, Health & Life Skills, Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Georgia K. Hilgeman, Executive Director, Vanished Children's Alliance

Carol Morris, Victim-Witness Coordinator, U.S. Attorney's Office

FYI: A Program of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

All rights reserved.

Copyright 1999 by the National Center for Victims of Crime.   This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice


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