Americans are captivated by missing child stories, haunted by the nagging specter of “What if this happened to my child?”
The year 2018 was punctuated by a handful of missing child cases that were covered by mainstream media, including Jayme Closs, Mollie Tibbetts, and Karlie Gusé. Interest in missing children cases continues to grow with the production of documentaries and docuseries about famous missing child cases, like Madeline McCann and Jan Broberg. This cultivated curiosity can only benefit the ultimate goal of keeping a missing person’s face in the public eye in the interest of unearthing unexplored leads in their cases. Here is a list of fast facts about missing child cases to inform coverage in the media and online.
Law enforcement in the United States received reports of
424,066 missing children in 2018.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Missing
Person File states that as of December 31st, 2018, there were 85,459
active missing person records in which children under the age of 18 account for
It’s estimated that 1,435 kidnappings occur every year, but
due in large part to a majority of those being familial abductions, not all
have likely been reported.
The Second National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted,
Runaway, and Throwaway Children released by the Department of Justice in 2002,
spanning the years of 1997-1999, reported that 203,900 of the 797,500 reported
missing children in a one-year period were abducted by family members, and 58,200
were abducted by non-relatives. 115 of those reported cases were classified as
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children, since 1965, there have been 325 reported infant abductions in the
United States. Of those abducted children, 140 were taken from healthcare
facilities, 138 were taken from the home, and 47 were abducted from other locations.
Of those abducted infants, 16 remain missing.
Not all missing minors and children qualify for Amber
Alerts. America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts are emergency
messages broadcast when a law enforcement agency determines that a child has
been abducted and is in imminent danger. The broadcasts include information
about the child and the abductor, including physical descriptions as well as
information about the abductor’s vehicle—which could lead to the child’s
recovery. Missing children and teenagers who are classified as “runaways” may
not qualify for an Amber Alert because there is no evidence of abduction.
When people think of abductions, they likely think of
stranger danger and violent attacks. However, in 2016, 60% of all AMBER Alerts
that were issued were for abductions committed by a family member.
Since 1997, the AMBER Alert Program has been responsible for
the safe recovery of 957 children.
The AMBER Alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, who was
abducted and killed in 1996.
Missing Children in Media
Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy who disappeared on his way to
his bus stop in Manhattan, was one of the first missing children to be featured
on a milk carton.
Media coverage of missing child cases has been elevated in recent years by American television personality John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh became an anti-crime advocate following the disappearance and murder of his son, Adam Walsh, in 1981.
The disappearance of 3-year-old Madeline McCann is often regarded as one of the highest-profile missing child cases globally.
NCMEC received 23,500 reports of endangered runaways in
2018. One in seven of those children were estimated to be victims of sex
The average age of a child sex trafficking victim is 15
years old, according to NCMEC reports.
Child sex trafficking has been reported in every single
state in the United States.
The age group of children targeted by strangers in
abductions are female children aged 12-17. This aligns with approximate age
range of minor children targeted for sex trafficking.
The average minor victim of online predatory behavior is 15
years of age.
Of the predators targeting minor victims online, 82% are male, 9% are female, and 9% could not be determined.
Online predators most commonly target children on social media, photo sharing platforms, and video gaming platforms.
Autism & wandering
Between 2007 and 2017, 952 children with autism were
reported missing to NCMEC. In 61% of cases, those children were classified as “endangered
runaways” or lost, injured, or otherwise missing (20%).
Almost half of the cases of children were autism reported (48%) were recovered within one day of going missing, and 74% were recovered within 7 days.
We can help…
If your child has gone missing, call Lauth Investigations International today for a free consultation and learn how our expertise and experience can provide you answers in the search for your missing child. Call 317-951-1100, or visit us online at www.lauthmissinstg.wpengine.com
If you watch true crime media, it’s very likely you’ve seen a piece about child abduction before. In the last few weeks, the nation has been captivated by the story of 13 year-old Jayme Closs, the Wisconsin teen who went missing from her home in October of 2018. Law enforcement and other investigators poured numerous resources into the search over a period of three months with little to no progress in the case. Then earlier this month, as if by magic, she turned up on a neighborhood street roughly 80 miles from her home, having escaped her captor. It’s the perfect news story, with a harrowing beginning, a tense middle, and a thrilling, yet satisfying conclusion. But Jayme Closs’s story is not solitary in the true-crime world. Here are the stories of five other cases of child abduction where the child was eventually located alive, months—sometimes decades later.
Child abduction is horrific enough when it happens once, but what about when it happens more than once to the same child? The abduction(s) of Jan Broberg have recently returned to the American true-crime lexicon with the release of a Netflix Original documentary entitled Abducted in Plain Sight, receiving a fresh influx of media coverage and discussion in the true-crime media. In 1974, Jan was only 12 years old when she was abducted by Robert “B” Berchtold, a close family friend and neighbor. According to the documentary, it was not uncommon for Berchtold to dote on Jan more than her siblings, so her parents suspected nothing when he told them he wanted to take Jan horseback riding. When they did not return from their excursion, it took Jan’s parents days to fully intellectualize what had happened. After her parents finally filed a missing person’s report, a nation-wide investigation was launched for Jan and Berchtold helmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The present-day fascination with this case comes from the bizarre details associated with Jan’s first abduction. Through extensive pageantry, Berchtold was able to convince Jan they had both been abducted by UFOs, and it was their mission as humans to procreate in the interest of precluding the human race from extinction. It was 45 days before the FBI were finally able to locate Berchtold in Mexico, but not before he had married the twelve year-old girl. In a move that defied belief to modern audiences, the family let Berchtold back into the girl’s life after he had only served a 45-day sentence—which was subsequently reduced to 10 days—for her kidnapping. Two years later in 1976, Berchtold kidnapped her again, this time leaving a trail that would cause law enforcement to conclude she had run away of her own accord. He posed as her father and enrolled her in a Catholic girls’ school, all the while maintaining contact with her parents so he could cover his tracks. It wasn’t until three months later, after the FBI had tapped the Broberg’s phone lines, they were able to locate and apprehend Berchtold, recovering Jan safely.
Steven Stayner’s child abduction occurred near the beginning of a culture awareness now known as “stranger danger.” It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that American parents were beginning to educate themselves on the prospect of strangers abducting children from public places. Steven was abducted while walking home from school in his hometown of Merced, California, by two men, Ervin Murphy and Kenneth Parnell. After the men convinced Steven to get into their white Buick, he was driven to a remote cabin where he was held in captivity. When he begged to go home, Parnell managed to convince Steven his parents had given him up willingly, because they already had too many children to parent. Steven entered puberty while in captivity, and Parnell began searching for younger boys to abduct. Eventually, Parnell abducted a five-year-old boy named Timothy White. In an attempt to spare White the distress he had experienced due to his own kidnapping, Steven and White escaped while Parnell was working. The pair ended up in a police station where they explained to investigators what had happened. The case was the groundwork for California legislation that would allow the courts to sentence child molesters to consecutive prison terms under similar circumstances.
Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping is arguably the most high-profile missing persons case in present-day America. It was the beginning of another culture phenomenon in media coverage, commonly known as “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee on June 5th, 2002. Mitchell was known by the name “Emmanuel” to the Smart family. He took her from the bedroom she shared with her nine-year-old sister, Mary Katherine. Mitchell left very little physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, which stalled the investigation significantly. Elizabeth was driven to a remote cabin where she was held for 9 months. She accompanied her captors on public outings numerous times throughout her captivity, disguised in religious garb that concealed her appearance, fooling law enforcement and private citizens alike. It wasn’t until Mary Katherine realized all those months later the man she had seen take her sister from their bedroom was the man they knew as “Emmanuel”. She gave a physical description of Emmanuel to a sketch artist, and the image was broadcast across the country. Mitchell’s family recognized the sketch and provided law enforcement with photos of him. This eventually led to Mitchell being recognized in public in Sandy, Utah. At the time of his arrest, he was accompanied by two women, Barzee and Smart. Smart was returned to her family, and continues to be an advocate for children who have survived sex trafficking.
Child abduction is a horrible crime that can leave its victims scarred for years, and the case of Ariel Castro is no different. Between 2002 and 2004, Ariel Castro kidnapped three young women, and held them against their will in his Cleveland home. They were Gina DeJesus, 14, Amanda Berry, 17, and Michelle Knight 21. During their captivity, the young women were subjected to forced sexual contact, starvation, and other hellacious forms of physical and emotional abuse. After being rescued, Michelle told law enforcement Castro had impregnated her at least half a dozen times, inducing miscarriages through beatings with dumbbells, and throwing her against walls. It was reported she would need facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage Castro had done, and she almost lost her hearing entirely in one ear. Michelle was forced to help deliver Amanda Berry’s child, resuscitating it when it stopped breathing. Despite multiple reports of strange behavior from neighbors, and one visit to the house by police on an unrelated matter, the women were not rescued until May 6th, 2013 when Castro left one of the exits unsecured, allowing Amanda Berry to communicate with neighbors through a screen door. With the help of two male neighbors, Amanda was able to escape through a hole that had been kicked through the door and the neighbors called 911, leading to the rescue of Michelle and Gina. Since her rescue, Michelle has legally changed her name to Lilly. While she was in captivity, her son was placed in foster care, and was subsequently adopted by his foster parents. She told People magazine, while she misses her son terribly, she has no desire to bring him into the aftermath of her abduction.
One of the most hopeful stories of child abduction is that of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped by Phillip Garrido with the help of his wife, Nancy, on June 10, 1991 in Meyers, California. She was eleven years old at the time. Her case captured the horror of the nation because it occurred in full view of the girl’s stepfather. Carl Probyn was watching Jaycee walk from the front door of their house to the bus stop at the end of the street when a gray car pulled up next to Jaycee. She approached the car, assuming the couple in the car would ask for directions. In a matter of a few seconds, Jaycee was incapacitated with a stun gun and pulled into the car. Probyn gave chase on his mountain bike, ultimately losing the car. Jaycee was held in Antioch, California, in makeshift domiciles like tents and sheds behind the Garrido’s property for eighteen long years. Like many of the aforementioned cases, Jaycee’s name, face, and information were broadcast on America’s Most Wanted. During her captivity, Jaycee was subjected to repeated assaults, rape, and manipulation at the hands of Garrido. Despite best efforts, law enforcement missed nearly a half-dozen opportunities to rescue Jaycee. For example, Garrido had a parole officer, and due to lack of communication between police and the parole office, there were multiple complaints against Garrido that might have triggered a search of his property by his parole officer. In 2009, after Jaycee was rescued, the California Office of the Inspector General would issue a report detailing the failures of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that contributed to Jaycee’s continued captivity.
How easy would it be to kidnap a child in a crowded place? Maybe the park, walking home from school or even sleeping in their own bedroom. Over again, we see parents of missing children making pleas for the safe return of their children on the news. We see the Amber Alerts and Facebook posts and immediately picture our own children’s faces, thinking “What if it happened to me?” A common reaction to something so traumatic. This is the reaction child predators elicit from their victims families every day.
A young child becoming the victim of a predator is every parent’s worst nightmare, but the fact is, it is happening every day to parents throughout the country and our own fears do not wane just because our children are getting older.
I am a parent of four grown children and a mother who has worked in the field of missing persons for over 25 years. Every day I interacted with parents who were desperately searching for their missing child. Their pain unimaginable. Very quickly I realized the crime of abduction does not discriminate based upon a child’s age.
Commonly, we think of small children when we hear the word kidnapping and we think as our children age, they are safer, but the fact is, they can become even more vulnerable as they approach adulthood. The fact is that chlid predators can predate at any age.
While teenagers are venturing out, without the protective eye of a parent, there is even more chance they can cross paths with a potential kidnapper. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children throughout their lives and hopefully provide them with some tools that will keep them safe.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), approximately 800,000 children are reported missing each year in the United States. That number accounts for nearly 2,000 per day.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates a relatively small number, approximately 115 of those missing children are abducted by strangers and listed as an “involuntary” abduction in the national database of missing children. However, this number does not account for children (to include teens), who are listed in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) in various categories such as “Endangered Missing,” “Runaways” or “Other.” Many of these disappearances are considered “long-term” with more than a year having passed with no resolution or explanation as to how or why the child disappeared. The fact is, we just don’t know, therefor accurate statistics impossible.
One thing we all can do as parents is prepare our children. Much of the following information and tools have proven to save lives.
Communicate with your children
Predators do not look like the “Boogieman.” Strangers look like everyone else. Children need to understand that everyone is a stranger, even women and seniors. It is not about being unsociable, explaining this is about being cautious.
Agree to a code word
Strangers have no business asking a child for directions or a lost pet. Many times, a predator will try to coerce a child into coming with them voluntarily without causing a scene by telling them they were sent by their parents to pick the child up. Agree to a simple “code word” like “Giraffe” or “Cheetos” that your child can remember and tell them to only trust an adult who knows the code word.
Children should be taught to trust their instincts and walk away if a stranger approaches them. Though not all people are dangerous, it is always more important to be safe than being polite.
Don’t put your child’s name on personal items
Children will tend to trust others who know their name. Never put your child’s name on personal items such as clothing or backpacks.
If approached, children should be taught to scream and run. This will scare away child predators. Reassure your child the likelihood of being approached by a stranger is minimal but should it happen, to scream “This is not my dad” or “Fire” while running away.
The stakes are high when a child becomes the target of a predator. It really is a matter of life or death. According to the FBI, statistically when a child is abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of recovering them alive diminishes with each hour that passes.
When a predator has targeted its prey, survival depends upon fighting back. For example, if approached with a knife or gun and told to get in a car, statistically the child or teen have more of a chance surviving if they fight back at the initial crime scene. Survival rates drop when a child is transported to a second crime scene.
As children get older and spend more time away from parents, it is important to communicate openly with them. They need to know the dangers and reality of abduction without feeling fear which can be paralyzing.
Children should never answer the door when home alone or answer the phone and tell the caller their parent is not home.
Use the “Buddy System” and teens should always inform their parents where they are going and with who. No compromises.
Children should avoid shortcuts through empty parks, fields, and alleys. It is better to always remain in a well populated area to be safe.
Use a GPS on their phone. There are free Apps such as Life 360. The App can be loaded on both the child’s phone and the parent’s phone and track location. Personally, my children are all grown with their own families now but my daughter and I both use Life 360 to keep tabs on each other. Though teens may demand their space, their safety trumps the right to privacy.
Remember, promote a home atmosphere that is open so kids can let you know what is going on in their lives. Child predators have been known to use distrust between parents and children in order to manipulate them. It is important to help them to have an understanding and confidence you want the best for them. Thomas Lauth has been in the private investigation industry for over 30 years, and in the cases of missing children, he stresses the importance of communication between parent and child, “We often get calls for missing children and teens. Once located and reunited with their families, we often educate parents or caregivers on tenets that would prevent this from occurring again. Regardless of circumstances, the most important thing is communication. Not only open and honest communication between parent and child, but communication safety concerning things like social media. In a world where young people are glued to their devices, it’s paramount that they remember to have awareness of their surroundings. Communicate, Educate, Communicate.”
Teaching children techniques to avoid an abduction and child predators
The window of opportunity to save oneself from danger might be seconds and children need to feel confident enough to make a split-second decision. Child predators are depending on a child’s fear to overpower and subdue them. In addition to coercion, abductors use intimidation. There are some techniques you can practice at home to build their self-confidence should they ever be face to face with a kidnapper.
Practice yelling “Stop, Stranger” or “Fire” to draw attention and yell as loud as they can.
Practice the Windmill technique which means rotating arms in a big circle so a potential attacker can’t get a good grip.
Practice the Velcro technique by having your child grab and hold onto something, not letting go. They should also learn to scream while doing this.
If a child is abducted and somehow placed in a vehicle, they should know they need to take any opportunity they can to escape while trying to keep a cool head. Child predators depend on hysteria to allow them to escape.
Children should be taught not to be passive but proactive.
Try to open the passenger side door quickly or jump in the back seat and try to escape through the rear doors.
If placed in a trunk, they should be taught not to panic but to look for the “release” that opens the trunk upon pulling on it. Tear all the wires to the tail lights and brakes if possible.
I know this is a very serious and scary topic and just the thought of having to explain to an innocent child that some people are out to hurt them is incredibly uncomfortable, but when teaching others about fire safety, Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It applies throughout life.
Kym Pasqualini is the founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults and worked with law enforcement and families of missing persons for over 25 years. Kym continues to work with media nationwide to raise awareness of missing children and adults.