Skip to main content

Missing children, perception vs. reality

By Kenneth V. Lanning, Special to CNN
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
National Missing Children's Day is based on the case of Etan Patz.
National Missing Children's Day is based on the case of Etan Patz.
  • May 25 is National Missing Children's Day, chosen because of Etan Patz
  • Kenneth Lanning: Children can be missing for a wide variety of reasons
  • He says most missing children are not abducted, most abducted children are not missing
  • Lanning: Awareness about missing vs. abducted children will help prevention efforts

Editor's note: Kenneth V. Lanning, a consultant in crimes against children, was a special agent with the FBI for more than 30 years and was assigned to the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy for 20 of those years.

(CNN) -- May 25, National Missing Children's Day, is a day on which we honor and remember missing children. This date was chosen specifically because it is the date in 1979 when 6-year-old Etan Patz went missing on his way to school in New York.

The Patz case has resurfaced as a result of some potential new leads and an arrest that hopefully will result in the case finally being solved. I have the greatest respect and empathy for the parents of Etan, who are going through what is clearly one of the greatest nightmares any parent can experience -- never again seeing and not knowing what happened to one's own child.

Just as the Lindbergh case in the 1930s became a landmark case for increased national awareness concerning ransom kidnapping, the Patz case became a landmark case for increased national awareness concerning "stranger abduction." Each of these cases played a major role in creating laws, but they also fueled some confusing stereotypes.

Kenneth V. Lanning
Kenneth V. Lanning

When I joined the FBI in 1970 and someone talked about child abduction, you immediately assumed it was a ransom-motivated case. In less than 20 years, the attitude drastically changed to almost immediately assuming any child abduction involved a sexual predator. Either assumption is obviously not always correct.

Because of his young age and other case factors, it can be reasonably assumed that Etan was most likely abducted. However, children can be missing for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., runaway, lost or injured, benign episode, family abduction) other than nonfamily abduction. Children can also be abducted by nonfamily members for a variety of reasons (e.g., to solve a personal problem, ransom/profit, to kill, miscellaneous criminal activity, political) other than sexual gratification.

Most missing children are not abducted and most abducted children are not missing. The typical child abduction is a relatively brief event in which the child is usually returned before anyone had time to note the child was missing.

The best research data we have indicate that only a very small percentage of missing children were abducted by a nonfamily member. Of these cases, most of the abducted children were teenagers. And of the nonfamily-abducted children, almost all of them were returned alive and relatively uninjured a short time later. Understanding that the terms missing and abducted are not synonymous and interchangeable is important in awareness and prevention efforts.

In addition, sexually motivated nonfamily abduction is probably the only aspect of sexual victimization of children that people think occurs more often than it actually does. People tend to underestimate the likelihood that a family member or trusted acquaintance will sexually victimize their child, but overestimate the likelihood of stranger abduction. I am aware of no research that indicates that children today are any more likely to be abducted by sexual predators than they were 50 years ago.

Many adults love to reminisce about an idealistic childhood during which they did not lock their doors and could play outside with no fear of abduction, but believe that today they cannot let their children out of their sight. However, nonfamily members abduct less than a few hundred children each year in a manner that fits our stereotypical image of an abducted and missing child. The danger of sexual victimization of children comes predominantly from family members and acquaintances, not strangers.

On this important day, we should remember the reality of missing children such as Etan Patz, but not at the expense of ignoring or misunderstanding other types of victimization of our children.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kenneth V. Lanning.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.