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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 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.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT