Expert Commentary

Mothers, female relatives are most likely to abduct children

A higher number of children are abducted by family members in the United States than previously thought. A new study suggests mothers and female relatives are most often the perpetrators.

Woman holding the hand of a child.

A higher number of children are abducted by family members than previously thought, a recent study suggests. Mothers and female relatives are most often the perpetrators.

The issue: Children are abducted every day in the United States, often by a parent or family member. But limited academic research or data exists.

One of the most widely used sources of data is the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), compiled by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. But the data is old – national estimates were calculated in 1988, 1999 and 2011 – and rely on a narrow definition of “family abduction.”

According to the most recent NISMART estimate, three in 1,000 children are victims of kidnapping by family members each year.

A study worth reading: “Family Abduction in a National Sample of U.S. Children,” published in Child Abuse & Neglect, 2017.

Study summary: David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, led a team of researchers who sought a better estimate of the prevalence of family abduction. They used data from three waves of the National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2008, 2011 and 2014, the surveys asked children aged 10 to 17 years about their life experiences. Information about children aged 9 and younger was gathered from caregivers.

The surveys ask questions about offenses against youth, including maltreatment, sexual assault and kidnapping. For this study, the researchers focused on the answers to two questions: Had a parent tried to hide a child from the other parent, a scenario they refer to as “family abduction”? And has the child ever been taken by anyone he or she feared? If this person was a family member, the researchers call this “family kidnapping.”

Some key findings:

  • 4 percent of children in the sample had experienced family abduction or kidnapping and 1.2 percent had experienced it within the past year. Based on this information, the researchers estimate that 875,000 children a year – 12 per 1,000 — are either abducted or kidnapped by a relative.
  • Parents were the perpetrators in more than 90 percent of kidnappings and abductions. Mothers and female family members were responsible for the majority – 60 percent. However, fathers and male relatives were responsible for 64 percent of all kidnappings.
  • Children who have been abducted or kidnapped are more likely to be from low-income households and have separated, estranged or divorced parents. In two-parent families, an estimated nine children per 1,000 experience an abduction or kidnapping compared to 84 per 1,000 in single-parent households.
  • 43 percent of abductions and kidnappings were reported to the police, including 86 percent of family kidnappings.

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