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Today Show Revises Number of Missing Kids Downwards
March 09, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
Yet claims numbers are increasing.

The Today show was at it again this week, trying to terrorize parents about “missing children.” In a concealed-camera segment which showed how easy it was for an adult man to get a little boy close enough to his car to abduct him, it used unsourced statistics that do not jibe with the best data available on the subject.

Today claimed that since 1982, there has been a 44% increase in the number of “missing children.” But according to the Justice Department, which tracks such data and is widely recognized as the best source for it, there has been no increase at all in these numbers, and in fact, there are signs of a decline between 1988 and 1999, the last year for which numbers are currently available.

As we noted here when Today covered the story in 2004, the show claimed that 58,000 American children go missing each year. That is the Justice Department statistic for what it calls “nonfamily abductions.”

But in such cases, as the media rarely notes, 90 percent of “abductees” return home within 24 hours. The vast majority are teenagers running away with friends or romantic partners and over 99 percent are returned alive and uninjured. (Although many teen girls are involved with sexual activity during the time when they are “missing,” the statistics do not distinguish between voluntary and coerced sex because if the girl is under-age and the male is not, she is not considered capable of consent. The majority of the “missing children” covered by this statistic (65%) are female and 59% are aged 15-17.)

This time, Today was more conservative in its estimate, claiming that only 5,000 children go missing each year. While this is an improvement over 58,000, the implication is still that there are 5,000 stereotypical kidnappings, in which a stranger or acquaintance abducts a child to hold for ransom or abuse and kill him or her. According to the Justice Department, there are only about 115 such incidents each year.

Parents have enough to worry about without such “stranger danger” hype.