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Kidnapping Problem 'Impossible' to Quantify

by Donna Leinwand, USA TODAY

It seems like the summer of snatched kids.

On Tuesday, police arrested a woman who allegedly abducted 4-year-old Jessica Cortez from a Los Angeles park on Sunday evening and held her for two days.

Newscasts fixate on images of slain children Danielle van Dam, 7, of San Diego and Samantha Runnion, 5, of suburban Los Angeles. Elizabeth Smart, 14, of Salt Lake City remains missing. Yet when the White House convenes a conference next month on the problem of missing children, not even the president will be able to say how big the problem is.

The math on child abductions is fuzzy. No one knows exactly how many children are stolen by strangers each year. Experts cannot say for certain whether this summer's spate of kidnappings reflects a real increase in abductions.

The current concern over the flurry of highly publicized cases is reminiscent of a rash of child kidnappings that began in 1979 when Etan Patz, 6, disappeared from a New York City school bus stop and continued when Adam Walsh, 6, disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. Advocacy groups tossed around alarming numbers that suggested tens of thousands of children went missing every year and fueled parental panic that there was a national epidemic of abductions. Photos of missing children were printed on milk cartons.

But in 1985, The Denver Post reported in a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that most of the so-called abductions were runaways or children taken in parental custody disputes.

Congress responded in the 1980s by requiring police to enter reports of missing children into the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. But nobody established a system to accurately tally the number of children abducted by strangers each year.

"We have considerably better information about the number of people who are injured by farm machinery every year or the number of people bitten by brown recluse spiders than we have for numbers of abducted kids," says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "I don't think there's really an epidemic of abductions, but it's really impossible to know."

Crime analysts, FBI statisticians and child-safety experts say better numbers and a clearer definition of child abduction are critical to solving and preventing kidnappings. Tracking crime, they say, is similar to pinpointing the origins of a disease epidemic. Numbers lead to patterns, which can provide clues. A good sense of the scope of the problem makes it easier to allocate law enforcement resources.

Defining kidnapping has proved troubling for statisticians.

Researchers who analyze crime data have found that crime classifications vary by jurisdiction. A child may be harmed in several ways, so police may choose to classify a case by the most serious crime committed, such as murder or rape, rather than kidnapping. Police may not know whether a child has been abducted by a stranger or has run away.

When a child under 18 is reported missing, police enter the data immediately into the FBI's national crime database. But missing doesn't necessarily mean kidnapped. In many cases, the child is lost, not abducted, and is found quickly. In some cases, parents involved in custody battles abscond with their own children.

In May, police entered 59,600 missing children into the database but removed 57,998 who had been found for a net increase of 1,602.

Criminologists have deduced a few things about child abductions by analyzing cases they have tracked and from data that 12 states voluntarily reported to the FBI in 1997:

* Kidnappings are relatively rare. They account for less than 1.5% of violent crimes against children reported to police.

* Men commit 95% of abductions by strangers and 84% of abductions by acquaintances. The men are generally younger than 35 and motivated by sex. Kidnappers of infants, however, are frequently emotionally disturbed young women.

* Girls are more frequently abducted than boys and account for more than two-thirds of child abductions.

* Most abductions by strangers (57%) and abductions by acquaintances (71%) are of teenagers, not young children.

Many law enforcement agencies and experts say they sense that abductions by strangers are decreasing. But the numbers, from government and private agencies that attempt to track kidnappings, are inconclusive.

The FBI opened 62 kidnapping cases in the first eight months of this year. The bureau opened 93 cases in all of last year, 106 in 2000 and 134 in 1999, FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell says. The FBI gets involved in only the most serious cases, which often involve crossing state lines.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., a non-profit child-safety organization that assists in missing-children cases and collects data from media accounts, parents and police, has 103 cases of children who are thought to have been kidnapped and who remain missing.

Justice Department officials and missing-children experts estimate that 2,400 to 3,600 kids are taken each year by strangers and acquaintances. These numbers appear high to some because they would include cases of children who were found quickly, either dead or alive, and whose cases did not involve the FBI.

"There doesn't seem to be a firm number," says Chase Foster, a spokesman for the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system, which collects crime data from most of the nation's police departments, does not include kidnapping data.

"What's missing is consistency in categorization and reporting," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Creating a national, comprehensive reporting system would require retraining police in 18,000 agencies -- a difficult and expensive task, Allen says.

The center is less interested in establishing a national reporting system than on promoting the "AMBER Plan," or America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. AMBER sets up partnerships between police and radio broadcasters to transmit bulletins in child abduction cases. The system mimics emergency alert systems used for storm warnings. It is credited with helping police rescue two teenage girls who were kidnapped two weeks ago near Lancaster, Calif. A California transportation worker reported seeing the stolen car carrying the missing girls after bulletins were broadcast on radio and TV and flashed on electronic highway signs five hours after the kidnapping.

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