Childhood Studies Abduction of Children
J. Mitchell Miller, Stephanie M. Koskinen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0226


Few crime topics elicit as much fear and concern as child abduction, which is also commonly known as child kidnapping. Child abduction, or kidnapping, is a criminal offense that entails the wrongful taking of a minor by force or violence, manipulation or fraud, or persuasion. There are basically two types of child abduction; familial-parental and the much-exaggerated stranger abductor. Parental abductions are heavily contextualized in child custody and involve far less physical danger to child victims than stranger abductions, which include the majority of violence and sexual violence associated with more extreme abduction events. Despite the popular culture myth of “abduction waves” and pedophiles lurking in the shadows, child abduction is actually a rare phenomenon, as indicated by Shutt, et al. 2004 (cited under Social Constructions), which likened abduction likelihood to the rarity of a lightning strike. Nonetheless, media hype and sensationalism have framed both popular culture and social-legal constructions of abduction frequency, risk, and offender and victim stereotypes, most notably stranger/pedophile abductors and abduction epidemics. The extant academic literature on child abduction can be observed as a three-pronged typology of 1) historical works, more so accounts of well-known US child kidnappings such as the Lindbergh baby, Adam Walsh, and, more recently, Elizabeth Smart, and international research on abduction for ransom, custody, vice work, and military servitude; 2) legal overviews and opinions, both domestically and internationally, with the latter especially focused on abduction legislation initiatives within Hague Conference; and 3) the focus of this article, empirical scientific works primarily appearing in refereed journal articles. The majority of this literature originates from the behavioral (psychology) and social sciences (criminology and criminal justice, sociology, and political science) and, to a lesser degree, from professional school orientations (social work, nursing, and public health). As a rare event and relatively myopic, though seriously consequential, phenomenon, there isn’t a discernable number of reference works, anthologies, or established published bibliographies informing the child abduction knowledge base. Fortunately, there is a sizeable body of empirical works on child abduction to characterize the nature of the offense, its perpetrator and victim participants, and responses by juvenile and criminal justice as well as other stakeholder agencies. While substantial research attention has addressed child abduction in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Europe, this coverage is based on American research over the last few decades. This empirical literature on child abduction is presented in annotated form as a thematic taxonomy comprised of the following: 1) General Overviews, 2) Offense, Offender, and Victim Characteristics, 3) Familial Abduction, 4) Stranger Abduction, 5) Awareness and Prevention, 6) AMBER Alert and Other Official Responses, and 7) Social Constructions.

General Overviews

Research on child abduction in Boudreaux, et al. 2000 and more recently Walsh, et al. 2016 provides general overviews of the phenomenon. Palmer and Noble 1984 places selective emphasis on incidence rates, motivations, abduction typologies, and historical perspectives, while Heide, et al. 2009 synthesizes the literature on sexually motivated events. These refereed journal articles collectively constitute an empirical overview of child abduction that is enriched by an Oxford University Press book, Fass 1997, and a technical report, Finkelhor, et al. 1990, which detail and contextualize the general nature of abduction events.

  • Boudreaux, M. C., W. D. Lord, and S. E. Etter. “Child Abduction: An Overview of Current and Historical Perspectives.” Child Maltreatment 5.1 (2000): 63–71.

    This journal article provides a comprehensive review of empirical literature on child abduction extant at the turn of the 20th century. Major themes include incidence rates, dichotomous operational definition of child abduction (legal/social), victim and offender characteristics, and a motivational typology (maternal longing, sex, retribution, profit, and homicidal intent). Risk factors, victim selection, and evidence-based responses such as child safety training programs and improved investigative practices are also summarized.

  • Fass, P. S. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    This book presents a chronological unfolding of child abduction in the United States. Moving through famous kidnapping cases in American history, from the Ross case (“the crime of the century”) to the Vanderbilt custody abduction and the Lindbergh kidnapping, child abduction is characterized as a rare event exaggerated by the press. Fass presents narrative insight into family life, parenting, and media coverage.

  • Finkelhor, D., A. Sedlak, and G. T. Hotaling. Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America: First Report, Numbers and Characteristics National Incidence Studies: Executive Summary. Darby, PA: Diane, 1990.

    This report provides a typology of missing and abducted children based on FBI case data. The authors present national estimates in nonfamily and family abduction categories including missing children data on cases where the children have run away or have otherwise gone missing without implication of any crime. The authors urge special attention to and policy focus on high-risk children, who are most likely to be victimized or become perpetrators of crime.

  • Heide, K. M., E. Beauregard, and W. C. Myers. “Sexually Motivated Child Abduction Murders: Synthesis of the Literature and Case Illustration.” Victims and Offenders 4.1 (2009): 58–75.

    This analysis of sexual murders that involve children focuses on offenders who abduct their victims. Offender characteristics are studied, touching on trauma at birth, behavioral issues in childhood, and emotional and physical abuse. The authors suggest that a delay or cessation in personality development may be the root cause for offenders’ actions.

  • Palmer, C. E., and D. N. Noble. “Child Snatching: Motivations, Mechanisms, and Melodrama.” Journal of Family Issues 5.1 (1984): 27–46.

    This article features data from a variety of offender and criminal justice professional interviews. The authors dichotomize motivations for “child snatching” between concern for the child and satisfaction of personal needs. Common factors among child abduction cases are analyzed, such as motivations, planning, hostility, trauma, familial involvement, and agency involvement. The authors recommend extended study of child snatchers and increased involvement by law enforcement.

  • Walsh, J. A., J. L. Krienert, and C. L. Comens. “Examining 19 Years of Officially Reported Child Abduction Incidents (1995–2013): Employing a Four Category Typology of Abduction.” Criminal Justice Studies 29.1 (2016): 21–39.

    This journal article uses NIBRS data to identify child abduction characteristics. Findings suggest that media sensationalism is the cause of misconceptions and an overemphasis on stranger abduction, which are rare in comparison to acquaintance or family abductions.

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