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Journal Issue: Children and Managed Health Care Volume 8 Number 2 Spring 1998

CHILD INDICATORS: Missing Children
Eugene M. Lewit Linda Schuurmann Baker


In November 1997, an eight-year-old girl living in Puerto Rico was found to have been abducted by a stranger from her San Diego home nearly seven years earlier, when she was 14 months old.1 Her discovery received much attention in the media, highlighting the facts that abductions by strangers are rare and newsworthy events, and that finding a child who has been missing for so long a time is even more unusual. Over the years, other famous child-kidnapping cases, such as those of the Lindbergh baby in New Jersey in 1932, Adam Walsh in Florida in 1981, and Polly Klaas in California in 1993, each of which ended with the death of the child, have received enormous media attention and have heightened public awareness of the possibility of the abduction of children by strangers.2 In some instances, public policies have been made following particular, highly publicized cases. An example is the passage in 1984 of the Missing Children's Assistance Act, after the kidnapping and death of Adam Walsh.2

This article examines children who for various reasons may be considered missing. More than three-quarters of a million children are reported missing to the police in the United States each year, and many additional cases of missing children go unreported. Most cases of missing children are resolved without serious incident. These cases of missing children actually encompass many different social problems, including abductions by family members, nonfamily (or stranger) abductions, children who run away, children who are asked to leave home or who are abandoned (thrown away), and children who are lost or injured. The majority of abduction cases are family abductions, typically resulting from custody disputes. Many more children run away or are asked to leave their homes than are abducted, and very few children are abducted by strangers—only 200 to 300 stranger kidnappings are reported each year. Moreover, with the exception of kidnapping by strangers, it appears that the majority of children in each of these situations are not literally missing, because in a large proportion of cases, caretakers know where their children are most of the time during the episodes when the children are not at home.