Child Abductions, Joey Salads, and Statistics

I’m sure you’ve seen the video that went around a couple of weeks ago where a man named Joey Salads conducts a “social experiment” (as opposed to his normal pranks) wherein he lures children away from a playground after using his cute, white puppy to break the ice (he got the parents’ permission first). It’s essentially the same “social experiment” that was done on the Oprah Winfrey show about thirteen years ago and it’s supposed to deliver the same message: don’t let your kids talk to strangers.

Yeah, I know. I may be Johnny-Come-Lately on this, since it was a whole two or three weeks ago that this came out. I was in the middle of transitioning to my current job, so when I caught a bit of it on the news, I just rolled my eyes and went on about my business. It wasn’t until this week that it occurred to me that the reason why it was being shown on the news for several days in a row and making the rounds on the Internet is because it successfully plays on so many peoples’ fears. Not everyone automatically dismisses the video and its message, and this was a good opportunity to give an opposing point of view and set some things straight.

What the video encourages us to be afraid of is what the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children calls “stereotypical kidnappings,” defined as a kidnapping involving a “stranger or slight acquaintance who detains the child overnight, transports the child at least 50 miles, holds the child for ransom, abducts the child with intent to keep the child permanently, or kills the child.” I guess they use this name because it’s what parents are stereotypically afraid of, because it isn’t a typical kidnapping at all. Out of the total number of 797,500 missing children (according to this 1999 study, which is where NCMEC gets their statistics) only 115 fall into this category. That’s 0.014 percent.

This is what we parents are supposed to be so overwhelmingly concerned about? Your child is more likely to be struck by lightning. Elephants kill about five times that many people annually! To give you a more serious comparison, more children are backed over by their own parents every month than are kidnapped by strangers in a year.

The biggest fear of many parents (and a close second for many more) is that their child might be kidnapped by a stranger. As the numbers show, however, no matter how scary that thought may be the reality is that it almost never happens.

Children are far, far more likely to be abducted by a parent or family member or someone they know well. Often, these are cases of “custodial interference” where one parent takes the child away from the other parent or a legal guardian. Unlike a creepy stranger with a cute puppy, this situation does not arise totally out of the blue. The NCMEC’s publication “Family Abduction: Prevention and Response (6th edition)” lists “red flag” indicators that your child may be taken by the other parent. These include such subtleties as they have threatened to abduct your child or have a history of marital instability, lack of cooperation with the other parent, domestic violence, or child abuse.

Let me hit this point one more time. Most children who are kidnapped are taken by someone they know, not a stranger. In fact, it’s often Mom or Dad.

Now, how many of them were told over and over never to talk to strangers? That it would be a weird person they don’t know who hurts them or takes them away? And how many parents worried about that scenario and ignored the real danger they were living with?

All of us are prone to exaggerate the dangers of things we’re afraid of. Instead, if we parents are going to actually make our children safer, we need to focus on the real situations that are likely to threaten them, not the ones in our nightmares.

In other words, you should stay awake at night worrying about car accidents, instead.

So if you’re rolling your eyes at me right now, please be patient. I plan to talk about this more this week, too, because it dovetails nicely with some other topics I’ve wanted to tackle.

In the meantime, though, let’s look at some facts and figures.

There are a lot to be found at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children but what I found most telling was listed here. According to their source (which is this study from 1999), around 800,000 children are abducted annually. That sounds like a whole lot, right? But what does that really mean?

The study gives an exact total of 797,500 children reported missing in 1999. But being reported missing isn’t the same as being kidnapped. Having someone entered into the National Crime Information Center’s database as “missing” doesn’t take much more than a police report. And, despite the impression people have gotten from TV and movies, you don’t have to wait for someone to be gone for 24 hours before you make a missing persons report (at least not where I live, your mileage may vary). If your teenager storms out of the house and starts walking to their friend’s place you can pick up the phone right then and dial the police to ask them to come and report your kid a runaway, even if you can still see them down the street. If your ex-husband is just five minutes late bringing the kids back from their weekend with him, you can start the process to report them — and you’d better believe that happens.

And when your lost child turns out to be hiding under the bed, or your teenager gets brought back home, or your lousy ex finally shows up, the system still remembers that somebody was reported missing. To get our data from another source for a minute, according to the National Crime Information Center, there were a total of 635,155 entries made into their missing person files in 2014 (and that’s total entries, not just juveniles) — and 634,367 entries were removed that same year (a difference of only 788). The raw data doesn’t differentiate between a real kidnapping victim who was safely returned home and a kid who was playing a joke on his parents and wasn’t really gone at all.

Looking at the 1999 study again, let’s go over all the reasons why children get reported missing, by percentages.

A huge 45% of the children who were reported missing were either runaways or “throwaways,” a term meaning the parent kicked the kid out of the house without making arrangements for them to have a place to go to.

Another 43% were classified as “Missing, Benign Explanation,” which means the caretaker couldn’t find them, got worried, and made a report but it turned out the kid wasn’t kidnapped or lost or hurt or a runaway — the caretaker just didn’t know where they were at the time.

“Missing Involuntary, Lost, or Injured” children make up the next 8%. These are unfortunate kids who got lost or hurt on the way home and either couldn’t or didn’t know how to contact their parents.

Family abductions make up 7% of missing children cases.

Non-family abductions, which includes “stereotypical” kidnappings, are only 2% of all missing children cases reported by caregivers.

Don’t worry, there’s no test later. Unless your name is Joey Salads, in which case it’s already in the mail. Use a No. 2 pencil only, please, Joey, and show your work!

Anybody know Joey's address?
Anybody know Joey’s address?

One thought on “Child Abductions, Joey Salads, and Statistics”

  1. Great post! I found it very informative. As a mathematician I am well aware that humans find it difficult to accurately assess risk, so information like this is very helpful.

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