In 2020, there were 365,348 reports of missing persons involving juveniles under age 18 entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. Roughly 30,000 of these juvenile missing person reports remained active at year’s end.
While most parents will never experience a missing child, it helps to understand child abduction and steps you can take to make your child less vulnerable to abduction risk.
Most cases of missing children are family abductions involving a family member or friend taking, retaining, and/or concealing the whereabouts of a child to deny another person their custodial or visitation rights. While family abductions may be crimes under federal and state laws, most are resolved quickly.
Nonfamily abduction occurs when a child either is taken by someone known to but not related to the child — such as a neighbor or online acquaintance — or by a stranger, someone unknown to the child.
Nonfamily abductions are the rarest type and make up only 1% of missing children cases according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
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While nonfamily abductions are rare, in 2020 the NCMEC documented more than 600 attempted nonfamily abductions. A 10-year NCMEC study showed that attempted abductions occurred most often:
- On days when children were going to or from school or school-related activities.
- During certain hours, including before school (7 to 9 a.m.), after school (3 to 4 p.m.), and after dinner (6 to 7 p.m.).
- On the street while children were playing, walking, or riding bikes.
Younger children were more likely to be playing or walking with a parent or an adult, whereas school-age children were more likely to be walking alone or with friends.
Attempted abductions of older children are more likely to involve a sexual component.
According to the report, the most common lures strangers used in attempted abductions were:
- Offering the child a ride.
- Offering the child candy or sweets.
- Asking the child questions.
- Offering the child money.
- Engaging the child with an animal.
Children in the report had evaded abduction in a variety of ways, including:
- Ignoring or refusing the abductor.
- Using a cellphone to threaten or intervene.
- Fighting back.
- Screaming and/or making noise.
- Another adult or child intervened.
- Abductor left the area or voluntarily released the child.
Empowering Children to Protect Themselves
We expect our children to trust, be polite to, and show respect for adults. Many young boys and girls believe it’s not OK to challenge authority. They assume all adults are kind and honest.
While respecting authority is an important lesson, it is also important to teach your children how to trust their inner voice and be assertive. Making your child aware of the dangers emboldens them to act if their safety is threatened.
Here are some ways you can lessen the risk of your child becoming a target for a predator.
- Teach kids about personal boundaries. Helping your child set their personal boundaries is a key factor in keeping them safe. Teach your child about their private parts by name and explain what kind of touching from others is safe or unsafe. By using the proper names for their body parts, you send a powerful message to your child that you are approachable. Knowing their body parts and body boundaries empowers your child to recognize what is appropriate touching and what is not. This power of self-protection can increase their confidence and make them less of a target for predators.
- Empower your kids to trust their inner voice. Let your child know that it’s OK for them to say “no” if they are uncomfortable or something feels off. Tell them to trust that funny feeling in their tummy that is telling them that something’s not right. Make sure to let them know that you will support them and their “gut feeling” if they decide to say “no.”
- Explain that there’s safety in numbers. Remind your child to stick with the group. Whether walking to or from school, playing outside, or spending time in a recreational setting, have your child seek the company of others. Predators are not looking for confrontation or a scene. They’re looking for a child playing alone so they can quietly try to lure them away.
- Keep privacy in mind when it comes to belongings. That cute, personalized book bag or lunch box with your child’s name embroidered on it provides information a potential abductor could use to target your child. A stranger calling them by name could provide enough familiarity to make your child question if they know the person. Use only your child’s initials or other identifiers like a red ribbon or bright stickers on your child’s belongings. And remind your child to keep personalized items at home or out of sight.
- Teach kids that adults should not ask kids for help. A common lure abductors use is asking a child to help them look for a lost puppy or kitten. Another is offering to pay a child to run an errand for them. Teach your child that adults should only ask other adults — not children — for that kind of help. Remind your child that if an adult does ask them for help, they should tell you about it right away.
- Set up an emergency plan and make sure your child knows it. A common lure is the “emergency at home” ruse that potential abductors use to get a child to follow them. Or they may say a parent’s been in some type of accident and that they have been sent to pick up the child. Plan in advance for how to handle emergency pickups. Let your child know that you will NEVER have someone they don’t know pick them up from school, a friend’s house, or an activity. Role play a few emergency scenarios to help your child understand how to handle these situations.
- Set up a family code word or phrase. Create a secret word or phrase your child can remember in case you need a friend or family member to take them someplace unexpectedly. Remind your child to ask the adult for the code word when your friend or family member picks them up.
- Have your child yell “Help me!” to draw attention if they feel like they’re in danger. Bystanders may assume a child is having a tantrum if they are being restrained by an adult in a public place. Teach your child to yell “Help me!” or “This is not my parent!” or “Call 911!” if they are in danger. If no one reacts quickly enough, teach your child to single out a bystander to help. Your child might say, “Lady in the red shirt—this is not my mom. Call 911!”
- Urge kids to be alert and voice their concerns. Older children should be encouraged to use critical thinking and their intuition to recognize and report suspicious behavior. For example, kids should be wary of slow-driving cars through the neighborhood or adults without children hanging out by the playground. The smartest move is to mention such behavior to an adult right away.
Parenting Tips to Keep Children Safe
Not every situation presents a danger, but it’s smart to be alert for potential risks. Never make it easy for predators or abductors to take advantage of situations that could be avoided.
The takeaway is: Think prevention — not paranoia, and follow these tips:
- Know where your children are and who they’re with. Ask older kids to periodically check in if they’re moving between activities.
- Never leave a child alone in a public place, car, or stroller.
- Never ask a stranger to hold your baby, even for an instant.
- Don’t let children walk alone. Always encourage the buddy system.
- Teach your child their telephone number, address, and how to contact you or a close friend or relative in case of an emergency.
- Pay attention to threats and take them seriously.
- Take a lot of photos of your child. Keep them current and easily accessible.
- Keep dental and medical records updated and accessible.
- Make sure your kids know their neighborhood and can identify safe houses to run to in case of an emergency.
- Pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior. Talk to your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider if you notice sudden or ongoing changes in their behavior.
For more information on keeping your child safe, visit UPMC Children’s Injury Prevention section of the website which features a number of safety topics.
Connect with UPMC
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.