A parent's worst nightmare: Are child abductions on the rise?
(Court TV) -- First, it was the faces. Smiling in school photos and candid family snapshots, they were splashed across breaking reports and front pages around the country. Then, the names: Danielle, Elizabeth, Samantha, Erica. Their stories were painfully familiar.
The recent highly publicized cases of abducted little girls, from California to Philadelphia, seem to suggest that the insidious crime of child abduction and murder is on the rise.
But while the stories have recently dominated cable news coverage and have been splashed across the front pages, the cases of Danielle, Elizabeth and the others remain the exceptions in child abductions, according to researchers and advocates.
It's every parent's worst fear: a dangerous stranger snatches their child. However, the vast majority of missing children are not kidnapped at all. They are runaways and throwaways, kids who leave and don't come back or are told not to come back, according to a 1990 study by the U.S. Justice Department. Of the remaining cases that are considered abductions, some 350,000 each year, are committed by family members as part of a custody dispute.
In a country with some 59 million children, abductions by a stranger are perhaps the most terrifying of crimes. But they are also the rarest. There are about 114,600 such stranger abductions attempted each year, and about 3,200 to 4,600 or around 4 percent, are successful, according to the study.
Of those, an even smaller fraction, about 200 to 300, are what the FBI calls "stereotypical" kidnappings, where a child is gone overnight, transported over some distance, intended to be kept by the perpetrator or even killed. These incidents make up far less than 1 percent of the total stranger abductions.
The numbers of these cases are small and getting smaller despite the recent publicized incidents, according to FBI statistics. In 2001, agents investigated 93 cases of abduction by someone outside the family. That is a decline from the 115 cases reported in 1998, when such statistics were first kept.
The recent media attention on the cases of Danielle van Dam, Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runnion, and most recently, Erica Pratt, who made a daring escape from her captors Tuesday, has heightened the public awareness of child abductions even though most experts agree there is no current epidemic. Some suggest that while the number of cases may not have changed, their nature has and this shift has drawn the extra attention.
"They are quite brazen and that is a different kind of perpetrator than the kind that tries to get close to the family," said Nancy McBride, director of prevention education for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, referring to the man who snatched Elizabeth Smart from her bedroom, and Alejandro Avila, the man accused of kidnapping Samantha Runnion, 5, her yard, and killing her.
"They were in their own homes and that is as gut-wrenching as it gets." Danielle van Dam, 7, was also snatched from her bedroom, while Erica Pratt, also 7, was grabbed off a street corner.
Advocates for missing children would like to see all cases get the attention that these high-profile incidents have but say they understand the types of decisions that leave the vast majority of abduction cases relatively unnoticed.
"News directors are first and foremost looking for news," Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Court TV. "So if you look at the recent cases that have gotten so much attention ... those children disappeared from their homes and their own beds. It is a scenario that absolutely terrifies every parent. Thus, it's news."
Andrew Tyndall, a media researcher, disagrees.
"There have always been a few of these stories that had a special thing about them," said Tyndall, citing the beauty pageant video footage that helped to make the mysterious 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey a highly visual, and thereby, high-profile story.
"I don't see the hook in either [the Smart or the Runnion] cases to elevate them. It is not that there is a national epidemic. These are the sort of stories that would not traditionally be network stories but would be local stories."
Yet, these stories were elevated to the national stage. That was not the case for three recent and similar abductions.
In March, 13-year-old Laura Ayala was reported missing after she left her Houston home to buy a newspaper at a nearby gas station. Only her shoes were found. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been trying to draw attention to the case but with little success.
The next month, Jahi Turner, a 2-year-old boy, disappeared while playing at a park in San Diego, the same city where Danielle van Dam was abducted and killed. In May, Alexis Patterson, 7, disappeared on her way to school in Milwaukee.
None of the cases garnered prominent national play. Ayala is Hispanic and Turner and Patterson are both black, raising the question of whether race or social class help determine which cases get media attention.
"It pains me, as a black man, a black journalist and as a journalist," Will Sutton, deputy managing editor of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told the Los Angeles Times. "Because for me, it's a matter of accuracy, balance and fairness as well as completeness."
Other news executives refute claims of bias, citing the circumstances of each case as the determining factors.
While a lack of national exposure strikes some as unfair, keeping kidnapping stories local may actually be beneficial, according to child advocate Marc Klaas.
"All kidnappings are local events," said Klaas, who founded the Klaas Kids Foundation after his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped and murdered in 1993. "You don't turn your back on your local media in an attempt to get more national publicity. As good as he is, Larry King is not going to be around when your story stops making headlines."
In his opinion, the headlines are not based on race or class but on the actual stories that prompt them, and these, he says, can be kept newsworthy with a little effort. Klaas and other advocates often counsel families of missing kids on how to effectively keep their stories and searches alive through the media even when the initial interest has died down.
"It is up to the families to keep people invested in the recovery effort of the kids," Klaas said. "You need a story that is compelling and a child that's compelling and those children can be made compelling through a variety of anecdotes and pictures. You can get that in any language and any color."
McBride even claims to offer families a sort of "P.R. 101 class" in their time of need.
"We tell parents that the media is their best friend when their child is missing," she said. "Many do not have a frame of reference on how to do this. We try to help them understand the system. Nobody gets the word out quicker than the media."
Authorities are sensitive to the fact that time is critical in investigating abduction cases. Too often, however, it is their worst enemy.
A study by the state of Washington found that in nearly three quarters of the cases of children who are abducted and murdered, the victims are killed within the first three hours. Also, in more than half of the 200 to 300 so-called "stereotypical kidnappings" each year, the children are either killed or never found.
But there are sometimes uplifting exceptions to the grim endings.
On Monday evening, Erica Pratt was grabbed, kicking and screaming, from the street corner in front of her Philadelphia home by two men who then sped away with her in a car. At a time of heightened attention to such cases, it sounded eerily similar to the Samantha Runnion abduction a week earlier in California.
However, this case had a happy ending. On Tuesday, the girl gnawed through the duct tape that kept her bound in a dirty basement for nearly 24 hours and escaped through a window to safety.
A Philadelphia police inspector said the dramatic escape shows that Erica's a "remarkable little person."
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