Fears and Confusion Reigns in the Absence of Data

Fears and Confusion Reigns in the Absence of Data

Fears and Confusion Reigns in the Absence of Data
Fears and Confusion Reigns in the Absence of Data

Statistics about kidnappings measure one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. And yet at the beginning of the 1980s, when a nationwide panic broke out, no organization or government agency was monitoring the scope of this problem. No sys- tematic and comprehensive records were kept about the number of cases in which a distraught parent told police officers that a child was missing, the number of arrests of hostage takers by local departments, the outcomes of state prosecutions for kidnapping, or the number of kidnapped youngsters who were murdered. Because no one knew how many innocent, helpless children were seized and carried off each year, wild estimates cir- culated, and public fear levels soared.

The official source of data about crimes known to the police, the UCR, was of little use because kidnappings are not a Part One index offense. Fur- thermore, arrests for kidnappings were (and con- tinue to be) combined with lesser crimes under the headings “offenses against family and children” and “all other offenses” in the UCR’s Part Two. (However, the emerging National Incident Based Record System, NIBRS, does keep track of kid- nappings.) In the other official source, the NCVS, respondents were not asked about kidnappings of members of their households. In fact, the inter- viewers did not (and still don’t) inquire about any crimes committed against youngsters under 12. The only estimates about the number of missing chil- dren presumed to be victims of foul play were derived from very limited studies of police files or projections from surveys based on small samples.

Insufficient record keeping and sporadic monitoring of the various dimensions of the problem remain a vexing problem to this day.

As a result, a heated debate has periodically erupted during the past three decades between maximalist alarmists and minimalist skeptics over what has happened to youngsters whose where- abouts are not known to their parents. Starting in the early 1980s, maximalists argued that kidnapping had become frighteningly common and that a com- placent public ought to get aroused and mobilized. Assuming the worst about the disappearances, alar- mists called for emergency measures to halt the apparent surge in abductions by strangers. They warned that child snatchers could strike anywhere, no youngster was ever completely safe, and parents could never be too careful about taking precautions and restricting their children’s activities. Two remarks illustrate the near-hysteria of the times: A Congressman offered “the most conservative esti- mate you will get anywhere” that 50,000 children were abducted by strangers each year (see Best, 1988, 1989a); and a father of a murdered child told a congressional hearing, “This country is lit- tered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, and stran- gled children” (see Spitzer, 1986:19).

Minimalists suspected that the true scope of the problem was blown out of proportion by well- meaning maximalists whose overestimates unduly alarmed parents. The public’s fears were stoked by businesses that sought to profit from selling pro- ducts and services to panicky adults; by journalists willing to sensationalize stories to attract larger audiences; by politicians looking for a get-tough issue that no one would dare oppose and therefore would gain them favorable publicity and votes; and by child-search organizations seeking a mission, recognition, private contributions, and government funding. Minimalists charged that maximalists were using the most inclusive definitions in order to gen- erate the largest possible numbers (see Schneider, 1987). A child welfare advocate summed up the minimalist position when he charged that inflated statistics were being circulated by “merchants of fear” and “proponents of hype and hysteria” who “have foisted on a concerned but gullible American

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B O X 8.1 Highlights of the Rediscovery of the Missing Children Problem

1932 The baby of a famous aviator is abducted from his crib and is later found dead. A man caught with some of the ransom money is executed. State and federal kidnapping laws are strengthened.

1955 The National Child Safety Council is established as the first private and voluntary organization in the field.

1974 Congress passes the Juvenile Justice andDelinquency Prevention Act, which mandates that runaways be sheltered but not arrested and confined.

1977 California becomes the first state to make violating a child custody agreement a felony.

1980 Congress amends the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to permit police departments to hold chronic runaways under court order until they return home. Congress passes the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act, which prohibits state courts from modifying original custody decrees issued after divorces and establishes a locator service that tracks down “fugitive parents” by tracing Social Security numbers.

1981 A Senate subcommittee holds the first hearings on the problem of missing children.

Child safety groups form a Child Tragedies Coalition.

Mysterious disappearances of 28 youngsters in Atlanta over a two-year period are solved when a young man is convicted of murder.

1982 Congress declares May 25 National Missing Children’s Day and passes the Missing Children’s Act, which grants searching parents new rights in their dealings with law enforcement agencies.

1983 A TV docudrama about the abduction and murder of a boy named Adam is viewed by an estimated 55 million people (about one of every four Americans).

1984 Congress passes the Missing Children’s Assistance Act, which sets up a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as a resource base and establishes an advisory board to guide, plan, and coordinate federal efforts.

1985 After a televised documentary, President Reagan appeals to viewers to help find missing children; 60 photos are broadcast and three youths are quickly reunited with their families.

1986 The first annual National Conference on Missing and Exploited Children is held.

1987 A National Association of Missing Child Organiza- tions is formed to share information and maintain professional standards.

1988 Congress amends the Missing Children’s Assistance Act to allocate money for establishing and operating clearinghouses on the state level to coordinate local law enforcement, social services, and educational activities.

1990 Congress passes the National Child Search Assistance Act, which requires officers to immediately enter information about disappear- ances into police computer networks.

1991 Congress enacts the International Parental Child Kidnapping Act.

1993 In response to the kidnap–murder of a 12- year-old girl by a parolee, federal and state lawmakers pass “three strikes and you’re out” provisions to incarcerate repeat offenders for life.

1996 The Department of Justice sets up the Victim Reunification Travel Program to assist parents whose children have been unlawfully abducted to other countries by noncustodial family members.

2003 Congress passes a bill that helps states set up a national “Amber Alert” broadcasting system to enlist the public in the hunt for an abducted child.

2006 Congress passes the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which mandates that the FBI must enter information about missing and abducted children into its National Crime Information Cen- ter (NCIC) database within two hours of receiving a police report.

2011 The acquittal by a jury of a mother on trial for allegedly murdering her two-year-old daughter (who was “missing” for over a month before the authorities were notified) inspires lawmakers in several states to propose bills that would make it a felony for a parent or legal guardian to fail to quickly report the disappearance or death of a child.

SOURCE: Davidson, 1986; Howell, 1989; Aunapu et al., 1993; Jones, 2003; OJJDP, 2008; National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 1987; Kallestad, 2011.

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public” what he termed “one of the most outrageous scare campaigns in modern American history” (see Treanor, 1986: 8).

As fears escalated during the 1980s, strikingly different estimates were disseminated from maxi- malist as compared to minimalist sources (see Best, 1988, 1989a; Forst and Blomquist, 1991; and Kappeler, Blumberg, and Potter, 1993). Several fac- tors having to do with vague definitions, police department practices, and pessimistic versus opti- mistic assumptions account for the sharp diver- gence. Some departments were less inclined than others to request outside assistance and federal intervention. Consequently, the FBI did not inves- tigate some kidnapping cases in which a stranger might have been involved. The definitions police forces used in classifying crimes directly determined the number of stranger abduction cases in their files. For example, if an incident occurred in which a child was lured into a car, sexually molested, and then abandoned hours later, it might be classified as a sexual assault for record-keeping purposes (in accord with the UCR’s hierarchy rule), inadver- tently obscuring the fact that an abduction took place, albeit for a relatively short time.

Assumptions about unsolved cases colored the estimates as well. The disappearance of a teenager might be the tragic result of a stranger abduction. But a more likely explanation is that a missing ado- lescent is a runaway who will eventually return home voluntarily. (Such youth may be victims in a different sense—of parental sexual or physical abuse. Furthermore, while out on their own, they are very vulnerable to sexual exploitation.) Other missing teens are not runaways but throwaways expelled from their homes by angry or neglectful parents. Finally, some children were not snatched by strangers but were whisked away by an angry parent who disregarded a court order after a bitter custody battle following a separation or divorce. (Seizures by noncustodial parents obviously can be ruled out in most disappearances.) In some remain- ing cases, especially those involving very young children, the missing youth may simply be confused and lost for a while. Minimalists suspect that many missing children are merely temporarily lost, were

spirited off by an angry ex-spouse, are runaways or throwaways, or are in the clutches of molesters who will soon release them. Maximalists assume that many missing children are victims of foul play and will never be reunited with their distraught parents.

This debate demonstrates how important technical details—definitions, ways of gathering data, and of making measurements and deriving estimates—can be in bringing social problems to the attention of the media, the public, and policy makers, and in assessing the seriousness of some aspect of criminal activity.

Many worthy causes compete for media cover- age, public concern, and governmental action. The first few crusaders to alert people to the danger of kidnappings by strangers issued press releases with shockingly huge estimates that generated wide- spread fears. They were the only experts on the subject because no officials or agencies were autho- rized to analyze mysterious disappearances of chil- dren across the country. But some journalists and social scientists became skeptical of these statistical projections. Soon, members of the media adopted misleadingly low official estimates with the same uncritical enthusiasm with which they had earlier accepted the activists’ overestimates. This capsule history of the controversy confirms these suspicions: Large estimates call attention to neglected social problems more readily than small numbers; figures from official sources carry greater weight than unof- ficial estimates; and large official estimates are the best of all to galvanize public support and govern- mental action (Best, 1988, 1989a).

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