Skip to main content

Most missing person cases don't have happy ending

By Kenneth V. Lanning, Special to CNN
updated 12:38 PM EDT, Wed May 8, 2013
<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/04/02/ohio.missing.girls/index.html'>Amanda Berry</a> vanished a few blocks from her Cleveland home on April 21, 2003. She was 16. On Monday, May 6, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/06/us/ohio-missing-women-found/index.html'>she was found </a>with two other missing women blocks from where she disappeared. Click through to see more miraculous stories of lost children who were found months or even years later. Amanda Berry vanished a few blocks from her Cleveland home on April 21, 2003. She was 16. On Monday, May 6, she was found with two other missing women blocks from where she disappeared. Click through to see more miraculous stories of lost children who were found months or even years later.
HIDE CAPTION
Amanda Berry
Georgina DeJesus
Michelle Knight
Elizabeth Smart
Natascha Kampusch
Jaycee Dugard
Shawn Damian Hornbeck
Elisabeth Fritzl
Carlina White
Steve Carter
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kenneth Lanning: It is almost miraculous that three women missing for a decade turned up
  • Lanning: Long-term missing cases are the most difficult and draining for law enforcement
  • He says majority of missing kids go missing because they were runaways, lost or injured
  • Cleveland case inspiring, but most long-term abduction cases don't end happily, he says

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) -- It is almost miraculous that three women who have been missing for a decade have turned up. The story of Amanda Berry, who screamed for help and got the attention of a neighbor who broke down a door that set her and two other women free, is riveting. Police have already arrested three suspects.

As details emerge in the coming days, many people are asking: How could something like this happen? Why did the police not find them earlier? There are far more questions than answers at this point.

Although the terms abduction and missing have become almost synonymous, they are not quite the same.

Kenneth V. Lanning
Kenneth V. Lanning

In sexually motivated abduction cases, the child is usually returned before anyone had time to note the child was even missing. The motivation is easier to evaluate, and the investigation usually focuses primarily on any sexual assault.

In long-term missing/abduction cases, the motivation is harder to evaluate, and the investigation usually focuses more on finding the "missing" child. Such cases are among the most difficult, frustrating and emotionally draining for law enforcement.

Children can be missing for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., runaway, throwaway, lost, injured, etc.) other than abduction and can be abducted for a wide variety of motivations (profit, ransom, custodial disputes, etc.) other than sex.

For long-separated families, reunions can be a struggle

What investigators are often presented with is simply the fact that a child is missing -- the child did not return home as expected. Family and friends want an immediate and aggressive response by law enforcement with the issuing of Amber Alerts.

Three separate cases, one rescue
Neighbor kicked in door to rescue women
Women rescued after 10-year nightmare
Dugard's message: Ask yourself to care

Law enforcement, however, must consider and evaluate all possibilities. Especially in cases involving teenagers or families living a chaotic lifestyle, determining that an abduction even took place can be difficult. It is simply not possible or reasonable for law enforcement to respond to every missing child case as if it were a sexually motivated nonfamily abduction.

The vast majority of missing children are missing because they were runaways, lost, accidentally injured or gone for a variety of benign reasons (e.g., lost track of time). A runaway or lured-away child, however, can easily become an abducted child when prevented from returning home.

In sexually motivated abduction cases, a child will usually be held only long enough for the offender to engage in some amount of sexual activity. A few sex offenders, however, seem to want to believe they will live happily ever after with their abducted victim as a sex partner. In a few cases (e.g., Elizabeth Smart, Tara Burke, Jaycee Dugard, Shawn Hornbeck and Steven Stayner) victims have surfaced alive many months or years after being abducted. Many parents of long missing children understandably pray that their children are among such victims.

In cases in which the victims are held and kept alive long term, the offender must have a method of control beyond just typical threats and violence. In my experience, this has sometimes involved the assistance of one or more accomplices or the use of physical controls such as a remote location, soundproof room, underground chamber or elaborate restraining devices.

It also usually involves an evolving and changing relationship between the offender and the child victim. The offender gradually moves from being a stranger using force to an acquaintance using seduction to a father-like or domestic figure using a family-like bond.

In some cases in which I have been involved, victims have been left alone, were poorly guarded, did not try to escape or seemed almost compliant in a variety of ways in their victimization. Victims may even feel guilt, shame and embarrassment or blame themselves as a result of this. In my opinion, the victims who survived the odds did the right thing, whatever it was. The Patty Hearst case is one in which society and the criminal justice system struggled with abduction victim accountability for behavior that helped lead to survival.

Some prefer to explain this as being the result of a mysterious process called "brainwashing" or the "Stockholm Syndrome." I see it as a perfectly understandable result of adult/child interaction and influence over time. A survival and interdependency bond may develop. It is a kind of adaptation or learned helplessness. This process can vary significantly based on the personality characteristics of both the offender and victim.

The case of the three Cleveland women who have escaped their captor after so long is inspiring and offers hope for other cases. But most long-term nonfamily-child abduction cases, unfortunately, do not have such happy endings. However, that should not prevent the continuing efforts to resolve them. The greatest accomplishment of almost any law enforcement investigator would be to be able to return a missing child to his or her parents.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
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
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT