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Missing Children, Misleading Statistics

NCJ Number
Public Interest Issue: 92 Dated: (Summer 1988) Pages: 84-92
J Best
Date Published
9 pages
The history of the debate over the numbers of children abducted by strangers shows the importance of statistics in bringing social problems to public notice.
The fear of kidnappings by strangers propelled the missing-children movement into prominence, although the term 'missing children' includes runaways and child snatchings by noncustodial parents as well as abductions by strangers. Although everyone agreed that abductions by strangers accounted for only a small minority of missing children, the public came to perceive child abduction as a serious problem. A federally funded information center and other efforts were well established by 1985. Although the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children revised its estimates of stranger abductions to 4,000 to 20,000 per year, the earlier figure of 50,000 continues to be widely quoted. That figure was being examined critically by the media and others in 1985. New estimates varied widely, depending on whether they included only children killed or missing overnight or whether short-term abductions for the purpose of sexual molestation were included. The debate shows how important the definition is and how activists use numbers in their efforts to persuade.


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