According to a new study, more children are abducted by female relatives than previously thought. Children are abducted every day in the United States: parents were the perpetrators in more than 90 percent of kidnappings and abductions. Mothers and female family members were responsible for the majority – 60 percent. 

Limited academic research or data on the phenomenon currently exists. One of the most widely used sources of data is the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), compiled by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. But the data is old – national estimates were calculated in 1988, 1999 and 2011 – and rely on a narrow definition of “family abduction.”

According to the most recent NISMART estimate, three in 1,000 children are victims of kidnapping by family members each year. In “Family Abduction in a National Sample of U.S. Children,” published this year in Child Abuse & Neglect, researchers focused on the answers to two questions: Had a parent tried to hide a child from the other parent, a scenario they refer to as “family abduction”? And has the child ever been taken by anyone he or she feared? If this person was a family member, the researchers call this “family kidnapping.”

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, led the team who sought a better estimate of the prevalence of family abduction. They used data from three waves of the National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, 2011 and 2014, the surveys asked children aged 10 to 17 years about their life experiences. Information about children aged 9 and younger was gathered from caregivers.

The surveys ask questions about offenses against youth, including maltreatment, sexual assault and kidnapping.

Some key findings:

4 percent of children in the sample had experienced family abduction or kidnapping and 1.2 percent had experienced it within the past year. Based on this information, the researchers estimate that 875,000 children a year – 12 per 1,000 — are either abducted or kidnapped by a relative.

Parents were the perpetrators in more than 90 percent of kidnappings and abductions. Mothers and female family members were responsible for the majority – 60 percent. However, fathers and male relatives were responsible for 64 percent of all kidnappings.

Children who have been abducted or kidnapped are more likely to be from low-income households and have separated, estranged or divorced parents. In two-parent families, an estimated nine children per 1,000 experience an abduction or kidnapping compared to 84 per 1,000 in single-parent households.

43 percent of abductions and kidnappings were reported to the police, including 86 percent of family kidnappings.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, “The Effectiveness of Victim Resistance Strategies against Stranger Child Abduction: An Analysis of Attempted and Completed Cases,” finds that girls are almost twice as likely as boys to resist abduction. A 2016 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation published in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests children abducted from their homes are usually taken by someone known to them or their family.



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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