The Missing Kids Obsession

Missing Kids, child in the background with a fingerprint and crime scene tape AP / CBS

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
American children at the beginning of the 21st century are surely the safest children in the history of the species. Juvenile mortality has never been lower. Threats from disease, starvation, violence, natural disaster and exploitation are fewer than at any prior time in history or any almost any other place in the world now.

So why is the American attention span so fixed on nightmares of missing or murdered children? Why are we in the media so attentive to that preoccupation or fascination?

There must be something deeper going on. What is it?

In the past 26 years, there have been waves of morbid fascination and occasional hysteria over crimes involving ordinary children, as distinct from celebrity crimes like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The case of Etan Patz, a boy who went missing in New York on May 25, 1979, was perhaps the first long-running story of this sort that grabbed national attention. In July, 1981, the head of a boy named Adam Walsh was discovered after he had been missing for about three weeks. His father, John Walsh, became the first celebrity victim and went on to host "America's Most Wanted."

Advocates founded The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984, just in time to give stories, statistics and soundbites to the burgeoning cable news business. There was enormous controversy for a while about whether the missing children phenomenon was being hyped and exploited. But another cycle of stories and obsession came along in 1993 with the case of Polly Klaas and then, in 1994, Megan Kanka, whose story inspired the Megan's Laws around the country.

Once again, these stories are prominent in the news and around the water cooler. For the past few weeks, the attention has been on Natalee Holloway in Aruba and Shasta and Dylan Groene in Idaho. Earlier this year there were the three kids found in a car trunk in Camden, N.J.; Brennan Hawkins, the lost Utah boy Scout; Sarah Lunde and Jessica Lunsford, two little girls who were abducted and murdered in Florida, and Katie Collman, a 10 year-old Indiana girl who was missing for a week before her body was found.

Even if interest in these types of stories is cyclical, this has been a long run.

All this goes on as all available evidence shows a decline in criminal abductions of children and in homicides.

The most comprehensive accountings of the realities of crimes involving children come from a series of studies by the Justice Department called the "National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children."

The latest study, released last December, found that between 1988 and 1999, there were no increases in family abductions or runaways and decreases in the numbers of children who were "lost, injured or otherwise missing" - that is, who may have been victims of foul play. The study noted that "the environment affecting children - possibly the economic resources available for their care, the quality of family life and parental attention, availability of social and medical services, and community safety and cohesion - has not worsened and have improved." That's good news, right?

The same set of studies said that in 1999, 115 children were the victims of the most serious, long-term non-family abductions called "stereotypical kidnappings. That's not a lot in a country of 250 million.

On other fronts, the news is also good. The Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that the number of substantiated child sexual abuse cases "dropped by a remarkable 40 percent between 1992 and 2000." It concluded that this was no statistical fluke and wasn't caused by any bureaucratic breakdown in the monitoring and detecting of abuse. It was real.

Similarly, the juvenile homicide rate reached a 20-year low in 2000. In 1993, 2,880 youths were murdered; in 2000, 1,610, a drop of 47 percent in just seven years. Again, that's good news.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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