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The children’s crusade: Although statistics on missing children are plentiful, few are backed by hard research

Spitzer, N. (1986, June). The children’s crusade: Although statistics on missing children are plentiful, few are backed by hard research. The Atlantic.


This article is a critique, not only of heralded statistics on missing children, but also of the many local and national groups created to deal with the problem. Its purpose is not to disparage the magnitude of the problem, but to urge a more thorough approach than ill-founded data, "milk-carton campaigns and frightening press reports." These "have served a purpose by catching the country’s attention. But more children might be helped by efforts that make less news."

An immediate distinction needs to be made between the government’s estimate of more than a million runaways a year and the number of abducted children. Most runaways are teenagers (90% are 13 years old and above, according to the FBI), and most stay at a friend’s home and quickly return home. Most authorities agree that there are at least a million children away from home at any time in the U.S. The number that are indefinite runaways and the number that have been forcibly abducted are disputed statistics.

Spitzer first questions the basis for the widely claimed figure of 1.8 million missing children. It seems to have been arrived at by adding the figure reported by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1983 ("1,155,384 runaway/homeless youths annually in the U.S.") and the number resulting from a 1983 Louis Harris survey (with R. J. Gelles of the University of Rhode Island) which concluded that 626,000 children had been snatched by one of their parents. "Casual runaways" obviously inflate the number of tragic disappearances.

However, "In 1985, the FBI investigated only 56 cases of children abducted by strangers. Of course, this is low because the FBI separates abductions from rapes and murders, and there may have been some local police departments which failed to report an abduction to the FBI." But this number is corroborated by Jay Howell, director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who claims that between October 1948 and March 1986 the Center "assisted in finding" 3,500 children, only 73 of whom had been abducted by strangers (of whom 31 were found dead).

The author’s contention is that the FBI statistics discredit those of John Walsh ("50,000 children disappear annually and are abducted [by strangers] for reasons of foul play.") Walsh is the president of the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Walsh has said, "This country is littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, and strangled children."

This article objects to such rhetoric, further exemplified by USA Today’s claim that 1.5 million children are involved in prostitution or pornography, and by Senator Arlen Specter’s estimate that 2,500 unidentified children are buried in the nation’s fields. The extent of the problem as depicted in television docudramas ("Missing I," "Missing II," "Missing III," "Adam," and its sequel "Adam: His Song Continues") is also questioned.

This article also notes tensions between some of the organizations dealing with this problem. The two largest national organizations are the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center. But "a hundred more private voluntary organizations (PVOs) are involved in the child-find cause." It is hoped that the National Association of Missing Children’s Organizations (NAMCO) will be able to fulfill its objectives of developing professional standards for its member groups and encouraging the sharing of information and resources.

In conclusion

A trustworthy survey of missing children by category is a much-needed first step...Beyond that, certain changes in basic law seem long classifying abductions by non-custodial parents as felonies rather than misdemeanors (for deterrence and extradition) repeal state and local laws forbidding the police to detain runaway and homeless children.


A nation’s excesses, injustices, and lapses are bound to be felt most painfully by its most vulnerable: the poor and weak. Children are suffering from changes in our basic institutions, due to the present preoccupation and self-indulgence of adults. Youth workers will be able to deal with the resulting problems most effectively when led by solid facts and strategies instead of by horror stories and competitive efforts.

Dean Borgman cCYS