Numbers Games: Suffer the Missing Children?

Taxpayer dollars continue to disappear while children don't.


On April 18, 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno approved the ill-fated federal raid in Waco, Texas, apparently because an unidentified FBI agent told her that "the Branch Davidians were beating babies," Reno said. More than 80 people, including 22 children, were killed during the raid.

Two years later, Reno wants to help the children again, this time by forming a new federal task force to "coordinate the delivery of federal services to missing children and their families." Those services include a national hotline, FBI investigations, searches conducted by U.S. Marshals and Customs officers, and parcel inspection by the U.S. Postal Service. The task force is composed of administrators from the FBI, the DEA, the Secret Service, the Customs Service, Health and Human Services, and the Defense Department, as well as several Justice Department offices. The vice president of National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), co-host of the attorney general's announcement, will also sit on the task force.

While any effort on the part of government to improve performance and allocate resources more efficiently must be applauded, the figures used to justify the extension of the federal government's reach in law enforcement are questionable at best. The Department of Justice estimates that "440,000 children are lost or otherwise missing each year, including children abducted by a stranger or acquaintance; children abducted by a parent or family member; and children who are abandoned–thrown away–or told to leave home." It also says that "450,000 children and young people run away from home every year." However, the attorney general's figures describe an epidemic that doesn't exist.

The history of missing children as a public issue is marked by inflated figures, often promulgated by organizations with an interest in scaring the public. Ten years ago, at the height of the missing children scare, The Denver Post ran an article detailing how "the inflated numbers themselves are damaging the lives of millions of parents, affecting how they feel about their children's safety and what they should teach their children about the society they live in." The Post also quoted family relations psychologist John McInvoy explaining how artificially inflated numbers are "making children paranoid, too." McInvoy continued, "[T]here's a difference between healthy respect and caution and what's going on now. It's not healthy anymore." In the decade since the Post article, healthy respect and reasonable caution have still not emerged.

The Justice Department's quotation of questionable numbers is not an isolated incident. Every day, agencies and advocacy groups seeking political leverage or financial rewards present exaggerated evidence in stating their cases. The organizations concerned with locating and returning missing children to their families are no exception, and provide an excellent microcosmic view of the phenomenon.

A Justice Department study conducted by David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire shows that the attorney general's tally of 440,000 missing includes children missing for a "few minutes to overnight." According to an analysis of the Justice Department figures by the Statistical Assessment Service, an independent organization that examines research findings, 19 percent of the "lost" children misunderstood parental instructions; another 12 percent forgot the time. In all, 73 percent of those lost were home within 24 hours. Among runaways, STATS reports, half returned home within two days, and 73 percent of parents were aware of their child's location.

Those most closely associated with missing children also dispute the attorney general's claims. Once a supporter of inflated figures, Louis McCagg, director of Childfind, the nation's oldest missing children organization, estimates that 600 children annually are the victims of stranger abduction, not 4,600 as the Justice Department maintains. Even if 440,000 children were missing each year, only a fraction of these cases would fall under federal jurisdiction. "It's sad to say," says John Gill, director of Children's Rights of New York, "but some organizations are exaggerating the figures to make their cause seem more urgent."

Indeed, certain groups represented on the federal task force stand to gain from spreading the perception that child abductions continue to be a national epidemic deserving federal attention. The NCMEC, a prominent task force member, was founded in 1984 amid the hysteria created by a series of highly publicized child abductions, including the Adam Walsh case. The NCMEC offers a national computer network, access to the FBI's "missing person" and "wanted person" files, public service announcements, photos, posters, and training for law enforcement officers. The center also provides referrals to 50 nonprofit organizations that fulfill certain national standards. And, working in conjunction with private corporations such as Kmart and Polaroid, the NCMEC has provided parents with Kidcare passports that include a child's photo, descriptive information, and safety tips.

Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC, notes that of the 800,000 cases of missing children occurring each year, 99 percent are resolved successfully by state and local police. Allen says that while child abductions are a serious problem, parents and children "don't need to be paralyzed by fear."

Nonetheless, the NCMEC itself has a history of inflating its figures on child abductions. A 1985 center brochure, for example, reports that at least 3,000 people are buried unidentified each year, and that "hundreds of these unfortunates are children." However, the College of American Pathologists reports that 200 unidentified children, dead from all causes including accident and disease, are buried annually.

The same brochure claims that one in four female children and one in 10 male children will be raped or sexually assaulted by the time they reach adulthood. The FBI's annual "Population-at-Risk Rates and Selected Crime Indicators" shows that in 1985, the rate of forcible rapes and rape attempts was 72.3 per 100,000 women of all ages. Without correcting for same-victim incidents and age, the FBI numbers yield a maximum rate of 1,300 per 100,000 women for the first 18 years of life (1.3 in 1,000 by adulthood), with male numbers considerably lower. A public affairs spokesperson for the NCMEC said that the center does not collect such information, nor has it ever been responsible for collecting national statistics.

Nor did the center's use of misleading statistics end a decade ago. In conjunction with its affiliate, the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, the NCMEC has claimed that as many as 50,000 stranger abductions occur each year, more than 10 times the Justice Department's own questionable estimates. Incredibly, this figure would yield a rate of three disappearances per state per day. The center currently offers a broad scope of estimates, ranging from 4,600 to 114,600.

The disparity among the estimates is due to controversy over the definition of "abduction." In the Justice Department's 1990 study, counting all attempted stranger abductions as "abducted children" yields a total of 114,600, while using the legal definition of abduction yields 4,600. Though children ages 4­11 are the most common targets of attempted abductions, 50 percent of all actual victims are age 12 or older.

Also, since 1986, the NCMEC has sought to have old crimes reclassified as stranger abductions, including classifying "voluntarily missing" teenage runaways as "missing children." In 1986, 75 percent of the center's "successful recoveries" were runaway teens. At the same time, the center hired lawyers to sue other missing-children organizations such as Children's Rights of New York for contesting their figures, though the center now says it has a "terrific working relationship with the runaway community."

Since the beginning of 1990, the NCMEC has handled 16,644 cases. Of these, runaways accounted for 10,280, while family abductions made up another 5,271. In all, these cases account for 93.4 percent of the center's activities in this decade. Only 515 (100 per year) stranger abduction cases have been handled by the NCMEC since 1990, 3.1 percent of its caseload. Ninety-four percent of the NCMEC's successful recoveries are runaways and family abductions; 3 percent are stranger abductions. Of all the cases NCMEC has handled since 1984, 5,337 remain open. Of these currently active cases, runaways and family abductions account for 84.8 percent, while stranger abductions currently account for 6.7 percent of the NCMEC's active caseload.

However, the center contends that runaways are missing children. NCMEC president Allen maintains that specific criteria for NCMEC cases are set up by Congress and the Justice Department. "We have no control," Allen says, citing guidelines which state that an "endangered runaway" is one who has been on the street more than 30 days, is less than 13 years of age, is prescription-drug dependent, or is in the company of someone considered a threat. According to Allen, these are not just "normal, routine runaways."

The center claims a 76 percent recovery rate in the few stranger abduction cases it does handle. However, 27 percent of the 391 listed as recovered between January 1, 1990 and June 30, 1995 have been found dead, yielding a live recovery rate of 55.3 percent. Of those lost, injured, or otherwise missing, the live recovery rate was 48 percent.

Bill Treanor, executive director of the American Youth Work Center, testified before the House Subcommittee on Human Resources two years after the NCMEC's 1984 creation that "the truth is that the Justice Department's NCMEC has a desperate supply problem–an acute shortage of stranger-abducted children. Desperate to validate the raison d'être of the NCMEC, its leadership is currently engaged in an irresponsible effort to falsely build up the number of cases of stranger-abducted children." Treanor attacked the NCMEC and its federally funded allies for trying to "put the private organizations out of business," quoting "one embittered director of a legitimate private, volunteer organization" as asking: "Has the NCMEC and the Office of Juvenile Justice become the 'national center for exploiting missing children?'" NCMEC president Allen responds that Treanor "misses the context of what was set up. The intent of the effort was to create a national resource."

Although the NCMEC has backed off some of its mid-'80s scare tactics, it still responds to clear incentives to make the missing children problem appear as large as possible. First, while the NCMEC is a "private, nonprofit" organization, its existence is federally mandated by the Missing Children Assistance Act of 1984. The center works closely with the Justice Department, the Customs Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and other government agencies, and has been described by Treanor as a "wholly-owned and controlled subsidiary" of the Office of Juvenile Justice.

Though the center maintains its official status as a private organization, it receives $3 million annually, nearly half (45 percent) of its budget, via a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. The center's funding depends upon its political appeal in Congress and appearance of necessity to the public: High numbers of missing children seem to justify the center's continued funding with federal tax dollars. Allen says that the center's melding of private sector know-how and public sector information is a "model Congress should look at for solving lots of problems."

Second, the center is associated with several for-profit private firms seeking to capitalize on the missing children problem. In August 1994, Preferred Contingency Insurance Services (PCIS), a Beverly Hills insurance company, began to offer non-custodial child abduction coverage, underwritten by Lloyds of London. The center, along with Paul Chamberlain International, a team of former FBI agents recognized as leaders in crisis negotiation and abduction investigation, worked closely with Preferred Contingency to develop the policy. Through a special arrangement with PCIS, the center receives 2.5 percent of the gross premiums collected. Coverage up to $100,000 can be purchased, and the minimum premium is $5,000. Overestimated figures and public insecurity are very powerful means of inflating demand for such services.

Treanor maintains that "groups such as Child Find, Contact Center, and the National Child Safety Council can do the job better, cheaper, and without the kind of nauseating self-promotion campaign which has become the number one priority of the NCMEC." However, according to Allen, prior to 1984, there was "no mechanism for quick dissemination of information" concerning missing and exploited children. Allen defends the existence of a centralized national center, saying that there is a pressing need for "greater uniformity in response" among the 17,000 law-enforcement agencies spread throughout "50 states that act as 50 different countries."

Efficiency and taxpayer interests are not the only objections to some programs of the NCMEC and related organizations. Private access to FBI records raises serious questions for privacy rights, and though Allen emphatically denies the formation of a national database, centralization of information and technology brings such a possibility closer to realization. Moreover, Allen favors a policy of requiring polygraph tests for parents reporting missing children, to avoid incidents such as the Susan Smith case.

The effects of the first wave of hysteria in the 1980s were immediately obvious. Renowned child doctor Benjamin Spock, a strong opponent of ID programs, maintained that the emotional trauma resulting from fingerprinting far outweighs any value that might come from the identification effort. In a 1985 Denver Post interview, Spock said that children understand that fingerprints are used to identify the victims of violent death, and that being fingerprinted gives them the impression that "children are being abducted all the time and that this child may be next." Nevertheless, state and local police (150,000 of whom have received "free" training from the NCMEC and the Justice Department) have conducted identification programs ranging from fingerprinting to placing serial numbers on children's teeth for bodily identification in the event of abduction and murder.

In addition to the immediate psychological trauma they inflict on individuals, fear-inducing numbers also have implications for society as a whole. Earlier this year after police came to his child's elementary school to encourage dental IDs, University of Texas criminologist Mark Warr responded, "Now what in the hell are we doing to the children of the United States, teaching them something like that? The probability of being abducted and murdered is less than a million to one, literally. And yet we're scaring the hell out of thousands and thousands of our kids. What happens is we end up with a society in which nobody trusts each other."

Unfortunately, after 10 years of research debunking the child-abduction hysteria, scare tactics still work.

Tadd Wilson is a senior at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was a Charles Koch Foundation intern in REASON's Washington office.