Child Abductions By Strangers Very Rare
Before their rescue on Wednesday, three Ohio women -- Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight -- endured a living nightmare for a decade. Kidnapped and held captive in the house of Ariel Castro, whose brothers are suspected of being accomplices in his crime, questions are now being raised over how the three women could have been hidden and trapped for so long.
In 2012, there were 661,593 missing person records entered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center. But of those, the vast majority, 659,514 to be precise, were cleared or canceled because the subject returned home or law enforcement quickly tracked the missing person down. Ninety-four percent of children who are kidnapped are found within the first three days.
For the rare cases such as the one that occurred in Ohio, three long-term abductions by strangers, even with a rescue, there's really no such thing as a happy ending.
Kidnapped in 2002 at age 14, Elizabeth Smart was among the most high-profile missing person cases in the United States. During her 9-month captivity, her kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, who had been hired by Smart's mother to fix the family's roof, forced her to consume alcohol and watch pornography, and he repeatedly raped her.
The attention her case received during her confinement, however, helped bring it to a conclusion by a biker who reported spotting Smart. Her captors, Mitchell and his accomplice Wanda Barzee, were sentenced to life in prison and 15 years in prison, respectively, for their crimes.
Since her rescue, Smart has become a vocal advocate for kidnapping and sexual abuse victims.
For 18 years starting in 1991, when she was 11 years old, Jaycee Lee Dugard was held captive and abused by sex offender Phillip Craig Garrido and his wife, Nancy. Abducted while walking home from school, Dugard would be handcuffed and chained at Garrido's house. During the time with the Garridos, Dugard bore two daughters, 11 and 15 years old at the time she was released from her homemade prison. As is the case with many other kidnappings that endure this long, there were several missed opportunities to rescue her from her ordeal, particularly given that Garrido had a criminal record.
In 1998, on her way to school in Vienna, Austria, Natascha Kampusch, then 10 years old, was abducted by Wolfgang Priklopi. For the next eight and a half years, Priklopi kept her as a sex slave in a small, windowless, underground cell. Kampusch eventually managed to escape on her own, leading Priklopi to commit suicide that same day.
This is the face of Josef Fritzl, who held his daughter, Elisabeth Fritzl, captive for 24 years in his house in Amstetten, Austria. Over that time, he physically and sexually abused her frequently, fathering seven children with her. Following her ordeal, Elisabeth suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her children still require therapy.
In the case of Shasta Groene, she and her brother, Dylan, were kidnapped by serial killer and sex offender Joseph Edward Duncan III, who brutally murdered her mother, older brother and her mother's fiance, in Coeur' DAlene, Idaho. Groene was rescued weeks later when she was recognized while at a restaurant with Duncan; her brother Dylan's remains were found weeks after that.
Michael Devlin, pictured here, was sentenced to 74 life sentences for kidnapping, child molestation and child pornography. He was arrested in 2007 during a search for a boy, William Benjamin Ownby, who had been missing for four days. However, Ownby wasn't alone. Devlin had another captive that he had been holding for four years, Shawn Hornbeck, who went missing when he was 11 years old. Hornbeck went on to create a foundation to support the search and rescue of missing children.
With the news coverage of the abduction and long-term captivity of three girls in Cleveland, many parents are keeping an extra-close eye on their children while the news media warn kids about the dangers of kidnapping.
Time magazine, among many news outlets, emphasized the threat of stranger kidnappings and offered tips for kids and adults on how to avoid abduction. In a story about a smartphone app to thwart kidnappings, one TechHive writer stated, “Although we’d like to think otherwise, women are still abducted on a daily basis.”
Unfortunately, information on kidnapping prevention rarely tells children what to do in case of the most common type of abduction. It may also be needlessly scaring children and parents by mischaracterizing the majority of child abductions.
As discussed in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, “While the term ‘missing child’ may conjure up visions of malevolent, trench-coated men luring children into their cars with candy or Pokémon cards, the reality is much different. The vast majority of ‘missing’ children are taken by family members, often when one divorced parent absconds with a child during legally sanctioned visitation. The child may not be where he morally or legally should be, but it is a far cry from being in a dangerous stranger’s clutches. This puts the term ‘missing’ in a whole new light, since at least one parent knew exactly where the child was. ‘Missing,’ then, is used as more of a legal word regarding the child’s status than a descriptive one designating the child’s whereabouts.”
Not only are most children abducted by a parent or caregiver, but — perhaps surprisingly — many abduction reports (thankfully) turn out to be hoaxes or false alarms. In just the past week, for example, a North Carolina mother lied about her toddler being abducted from her home. An Amber Alert was issued, and police later found the child safe in Washington, D.C., with her father.
A few days before that, a pair of 13-year-olds in Canada told police that they were approached by a man in a white SUV who repeatedly made sexual comments and tried to lure them into his vehicle. Police determined the report was false, and the teens admitted they made up the story. That same day a 13-year-old Tucson girl told police that two men in a van tried to abduct her on the way to school. She refused to get in the van with them, and when they finally drove off she heard someone inside the van screaming for help. Police teams searched the area for hours but nothing was found. The girl soon admitted that “she made up the story because she was late for school.”
Despite such hoaxes and false alarms, all reports of abductions and attempted abductions are taken seriously and fully investigated by police. Parents may find some comfort that child abductions are much less common than they seem to be, and that many cases they hear about on the news turn out to be mistakes or pranks, not an endangered child.
Stranger Danger Fears
Only a tiny minority of kidnapped children are taken by strangers. Between 1990 and 1995 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children handled only 515 stranger abductions, 3.1 percent of its caseload. A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that more than 3/4 of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.
In fact, children are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped or killed by their parents than any stranger on the street. University of Southern California sociology professor Barry Glassner wrote about missing children in his book The Culture of Fear: “In national surveys conducted in recent years 3 out of 4 parents say they fear that their child will be kidnapped by a stranger. They harbor this anxiety, no doubt, because they keep hearing frightening statistics and stories about perverts snatching children off the street. What the public doesn’t hear often or clearly enough is that the majority of missing children are runaways fleeing from physically or emotionally abusive parents.”
Child abductions are a real threat, but the risk should be kept in perspective to avoid unnecessarily alarming parents and children. In his book Protecting the Gift, child-safety expert Gavin De Becker pointed out that compared to a stranger kidnapping, “ child is vastly more likely to have a heart attack, and child heart attacks are so rare that most parents (correctly) never even consider the risk.”