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Fact Sheet on Missing Children

U.S. Department of Justice. (R.W. Sweet, Jr., Administrator). (1990, May). Fact Sheet on Missing Children. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Washington, DC.




The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) were undertaken in response to the mandate of the 1984 Missing Children’s Act, P.L. 9-473; 42 U.S.C. 5601 Section 404(3). Their objective was to estimate the incidence of five categories of children, those who were:

  • Abducted by family members
  • Abducted by non-family members
  • Runaways
  • Thrownaways
  • Missing because they had become lost or injured, or for some other reason.

Serious definitional controversies surrounding each of the problems studied made it necessary to estimate the incidence of each category of children according to at least two definitions:

  • Broad Scope. Defining the problem the way the affected families might define it. The definition includes both serious and also minor episodes that may nonetheless be alarming to the participants.

  • Policy Focal. Defining the problem from the point of view of police or other social agencies. This category is restricted to episodes of a more serious nature, where without intervention, the child may be further endangered or at risk of harm.

NISMART collected data from six separate sources:

  • Household Survey
  • Juvenile Facilities Survey
  • Returned Runaway Study
  • Police Records Study
  • FBI Data Reanalysis
  • Community Professionals Study

The data gathered from these sources were analyzed and the following nationwide estimates extrapolated for 1988:

Family Abductions

  • Broad Scope Family Abductions: 354,100 children. (Includes 163,200 Policy Focal children.) These are situations where a family member either (1) took a child in violation of a custody agreement or decree; or (2) in violation of a custody agreement or decree failed to return a child at the end of a legal or agreed-upon visit, with the child being away at least overnight.
  • Policy Focal Family Abductions: 163,200 children. These are Broad Scope situations in which (1) an attempt was made to conceal the taking or the whereabouts of the child or to prevent contact with the child; or (2) the child was transported out of State; or (3) there was evidence that the abductor had the intent to keep the child indefinitely or to permanently alter custodial privileges.

  • Findings. Broad Scope: Sometimes referred to as “child snatching,” these incidents are generally characterized by a situation in which a parent absconds with a child in the course of a divorce or custody dispute. Fifty-three percent were living with a single parent, and 24% were living with a parent who was remarried or had a live-in partner. Most episodes (41%) occurred in the midst of an ongoing relationship or not until 2 or more years later (also 41 %). Fifty percent occurred in the South. Sixty percent of the incidents involved violations of written custody orders; the remainder violated mutual understandings. Episodes were about evenly distributed between those that involved a taking of the child (from home) and those involving a failure to return the child following temporary custody. Stereotypical “snatching” of children from school or day care centers was rare (2%). Nearly half of the episodes lasted between 2 days and a week. Parents/guardians knew where their children were most of the time in 48% of the cases; 17% did not know at all.

Non-Family Abductions*

  • Broad Scope Attempted Non-Family Abductions: 114,600 children. These represent attempted abductions: for example, luring of a child for the purposes of committing another crime.

  • Policy Focal Non-Family Abductions: 3,200 to 4,600 children. These are (1) the coerced and unauthorized taking of a child into a building, a vehicle, or a distance of more than 20 feet; (2) the detention of a child for a period of more than an hour; or (3) the luring of a child for the purpose of committing another crime.

*Having reviewed all Non-Family abductions as “Policy Focal” cases, the study authors did not distinguish between “Broad Scope” and “Policy Focal” Non-Family Abduction cases. They distinguished between “Legal Definition Abduction” and “Stereotypical Kidnappings.” In this Fact Sheet we have relabeled Legal Definition Abductions as “Policy Focal” and categorized Attempted Non-Family Abductions as “Broad Scope,” simply for the purpose of consistency across categories. However, the two subcategories that we have thus created cannot be combined.


  • Findings. Broad Scope: Children aged 4 to 11 experienced most of the attempts. Most involved attempts to lure children into cars rather than attempts to take or detain. Policy Focal: Almost half of the victims were children age 12 and older. Seventy-four percent were girls. Sixty-two percent of the perpetrators were strangers and 19% were acquaintances. Most were removed from the street (52%) and taken to a vehicle (46%). Force was used against 87% of the victims; it involved a weapon in 75% of the cases. Ransom was requested in 8% of the cases.


  • Broad Scope Runaways: 450,700 children. (Includes 133,500 Policy Focal children.) These are children who left home without permission and stayed away overnight. The estimate also includes some children (depending on their age and length of time away) who were already away and refused to return home.
  • Policy Focal Runaways: 133,500 children. These are Broad Scope Runaways who in the course of their runaway episodes were without a secure and familiar place to stay. These also included children who ran away from a juvenile facility.

  • Findings. Broad Scope: The rate of running away was about the same in 1988 as in 1975 (as documented in another study). Over two-thirds were 16 to 17 years old. Fifty-eight percent were girls. Only 28% ran from households where both parents were present. Most (60%) ran to a friend’s house and spent most of their time there. Forty-nine percent returned within 2 days. Parents/guardians knew their whereabouts most of the time in 39% of the cases; 27% did not know at all. Another 12,800 ran away from juvenile facilities (both correctional and noncorrectional).


  • Broad Scope Thrownaways: 127,100 children. (Includes 59,200 Policy Focal children.) These are children who experienced any of the following situations: (1) the child was told to leave the household; (2) the child was away from home, and a parent/guardian refused to allow the child back; (3) the child ran away but the parent/guardian made no effort to recover the child or did not care whether or not the child returned; or (4) the child was abandoned or deserted. In every case the child had to be out of the household at least 1 night.
  • Policy Focal Thrownaways: 59,200 children. These are Broad Scope Thrownaways who had no secure and familiar place to stay.

  • Findings. Broad Scope: Children aged 16 to 17 constituted 84% of Thrownaways. About as many were boys as girls. Nineteen percent were from two-parent families. Almost half (44%) were asked or forced to leave their households; in another 25% of the cases, children had run away and their parents/guardians did not care whether or not they returned, and 29% made no effort to recover them.Arguments preceded Thrownaway situations in 59% of the cases—most likely concerning house rules (49%) or friends (36%). Physical violence occurred in 27% of the episodes preceded by arguments. Most (60%) initially went to stay with a friend; 4% stayed in a runaway shelter; and 13% did not have a place to sleep at some point during their absence from the home. The majority (68%) returned home within 2 weeks; 20% had not yet returned (about twice the proportion for Runaways). Sixty percent of the parents/guardians knew their whereabouts most of the time. A total of 14,500 were abandoned by their parents or guardians. Most of these (51%) were 4 years of age or younger. Thirty-seven percent of these were from two-parent families.

Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing

  • Broad Scope Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing: 438,200 children. (Includes 139,100 Policy Focal children.) These are children missing for varying periods of time (from a few minutes to overnight) depending on their age, disability, and whether the absence was due to an injury.
  • Policy Focal Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing: 139,100 children. These are Broad Scope children whose episodes were serious enough that the police were called.

  • Findings. Broad Scope: Forty-seven percent were aged 4 or under; 34% were 16 to 17. Episodes were more likely to occur (64%) in large cities or their suburbs. In 19% of the cases the child was injured; 6% got lost; and 12% forgot the time. In 19% of the cases either the child or his/her parent or guardian misunderstood expectations. Nineteen percent were recovered within 2 hours or less; 73% within 24 hours. Police were called in 32% of the cases. In 21% the child experienced some physical harm; 14% were physically assaulted or abused.

The study was conducted by David Finkelhor, Ph.D., of the University of New Hampshire; Gerald Hotaling, Ph.D., of the University of Lowell; and Andrea Sedlak, Ph.D., of Westat, Inc.

Questions about the study may be addressed to members of this research team (Dr. Finkelhor, 603.862.2761; Dr. Hotaling, 508.934.4149; Dr. Sedlak, 301.251.4211). To obtain copies of the full report or the executive summary, call or write the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, 800.638.8736 (301.251.5000 from Maryland and Metropolitan Washington, D.C.).

The Assistant Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs, coordinates the activities of the following program Offices and Bureaus: the Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Institute of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime.