Far more common are children who have run away, have gotten lost or injured, have been taken by a family member (usually in a custody dispute) or simply aren’t where they’re expected to be because of a miscommunication. The only scenario more unusual than stereotypical kidnapping is when families falsely report a child as missing to disguise murderous deeds.
While abduction and homicide are truly horrible, the costs of more common missing-children cases shouldn’t be underestimated. Those cases, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, occupy vast amounts of police time and leave lasting scars on their victims as well.
2. More and more children are going missing.
The Cleveland case has prompted a spate of missing-children articles and news reports: “Missing Children in America: Unsolved Cases,” “Search for missing children never ends in Las Vegas,” “LA Missing Children’s Families May Feel Renewed Hope.” It may seem like we’re in the midst of an epidemic. In reality, though, all signs indicate that the problem has been improving. Many state missing-children agencies show declining numbers of cases. That trend is supported by FBI statistics showing fewer missing persons of all ages — down 31 percent between 1997 and 2011. The numbers of homicides, sexual assaults and almost all other crimes against children have been dropping, too.
Why fewer missing kids? Cellphones are almost certainly part of the explanation. When a friend of my son’s skiied off a trail and into the Maine wilderness near nightfall last winter, a cellphone call got the ski patrol to the right spot and short-circuited what could have been a lengthy search and a possible fatality. Cellphones allow children to summon help and get out of threatening situations. They enable parents to figure out where their kids are when they don’t come home. They afford teens a somewhat longer leash than in the past and thus help counteract one important motive — a quest for autonomy — for children who disappear on their own.
Other factors are probably involved in the decline, too. Over the past three decades, we have become more aggressive about finding, prosecuting, incarcerating, supervising, treating and deterring sex offenders. And we have implemented prevention programs and response systems, such as Amber Alert, that both discourage crime and resolve disappearances quickly.
3. The Internet has made kidnapping easier.
Many parents worry about their kids meeting unsavory characters online. But in light of the falling rates of crimes against children, the idea that the Internet amplifies danger is suspect. In fact, it may have contributed to the decline in missing children. For one thing, the Web has changed the way young people take risks: They do it more often at home. Instead of going to the unchaperoned open house or the keg party at the quarry, young people these days socialize and experiment online. Although they can meet people with bad intentions, the physical distance means that more time and thinking elapse between an encounter and a crime.