Factors That Predict The Safe Recovery Of Missing And Abducted Children


Missing and abducted children deservedly garner a great deal of media attention; however, most missing children are not abducted, contrary to stereotypical beliefs about the inherent dangers of childhood. There are many reasons why a child may go missing—they ran away, were abducted, were delayed in arriving home from a friend’s house, or there was miscommunication between caretakers. Based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) National Crime Information Center (NCIC) missing person file, law enforcement entered 365,348 missing juveniles under the age of 18 into NCIC in 2020, a decrease from 421,394 in 2019 (FBI, 2020, 2021). It is important to note that these numbers are not unique counts—if the same child goes missing within the year, the child will be counted in the annual sum each time they are reported missing (Sedlak et al., 2017). Having a better understanding of not only how many children go missing, but also why they go missing and what factors contribute to their safe recovery, is needed in order to fully address the problem.

Law enforcement is not always contacted when a child goes missing. Sometimes parents do not consider their child missing because they know their child’s location despite them not being where they are supposed to be, the child returns before they are missed, or parents felt police assistance was not needed (Hammer et al., 2002a; Wolak et al., 2016). This is critical to note, because due to underreporting of missing child incidents, administrative law enforcement data do not accurately depict the actual level of missing child incidents that occur annually. Following the extant literature, the present study focuses on non-family abductions, family abductions, runaways/thrownaways, and otherwise missing children. Distinguishing characteristics of each are subsequently discussed in greater detail.


Children of all ages are victims of child abduction; however, the child’s developmental stage may help predict their relationship to the offender, which may influence the likelihood that the child is recovered safely. Miller et al. (2008) found that young children, those under 5 years old, and older children, those ages 12–17, are more likely to be abducted than children in the middle-childhood stage. Child victimization, including child abduction, should be viewed on a dependency continuum (Finkelhor, 2008). Young children are highly dependent on their parents for survival and, due to their developmental status, often require near-constant supervision. Furthermore, they have little choice in who they live and associate with (Finkelhor, 2008). Their level of dependency influences the likely relationship with an abduction perpetrator; young children are much less likely to be abducted by a stranger and more likely to be abducted by a family member (Boudreaux et al., 1999). In contrast, older children are more likely to have increased freedom and less supervision,decreasing the risk of abduction by a family member but increasing the likelihood of abduction by a stranger or acquaintance (Beauregard et al., 2008; Collie and Shalev Greene, 2017).

Non-family abductions

A non-family abduction is an incident in which a non-family perpetrator (either a stranger or acquaintance) takes a child by force or threat of force and detains the child for a period of time without permission of the victim’s parent (Finkelhor et al., 2002). Victims of non-family abductions tend to be older, due to a multitude of developmental factors such as less parental supervision and stage of sexual maturity. A study of 584 victims of non-family abductions by Warren et al. (2020) found that the majority of victims were between the ages of 6 and 13, followed by adolescents ages 14–17. Past research on non-family abductions in nationwide household sampling study shows that victims were primarily taken from public spaces, such as streets, parks, and wooded areas, and are perpetrated by people known to the child (Finkelhor et al., 2002). It is worth noting that in more recent waves of this national study, violent first contacts in non-family abductions seem to be declining (Wolak et al., 2016).

Family abductions

Family abductions are those in which the primary abductor has a familial relationship to the victim. Cases of family abduction are more likely to involve young children, typically those under the age of six. Furthermore, there are generally no significant gender differences, with male and female children being equally likely to be victims of family abduction (Hammer et al., 2002b; Walsh et al., 2016). In studies utilizing both administrative data (NIBRS) (Walsh et al., 2016) and household sampling data (Hammer et al., 2002b), older children were less likely to be victims of family abduction. This is likely due to their increased independence and the ability to choose their associates compared with young children (Finkelhor, 2008).


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