Oft-cited stats about child abduction puts kidnappers behind every bush. But the numbers are old and frequently mangled, distorting our understanding of genuine risks to children.

As a parent of two young children, it's my job to keep them healthy, safe, and happy. But I'm not at all worried they're going to be snatched off the street. Why? Because oft-spread claims that that 800,000 children are reported missing each year—with 300,000 children estimated to be sexually trafficked—are outdated or simply wrong.

Abduction Rates Overstated and Outdated

The commonly cited "800,000" number is from a 2002 study of 1999 data. This information is widely misstated, and the data hasn't been updated in the era of ubiquitous mobile access and Amber Alerts. The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) surveyed about 16,000 adults, examined a subset of law-enforcement agencies (roughly 25% of the total), and a sampling of juvenile facilities, including detention and treatment centers. No comprehensive study or survey of this scope has since been conducted in America.

The report has two "big" numbers. The 800,000 figure refers to the number of children reported lost to law enforcement or missing children's agencies, and was considered a much more reliable count. A second number, 1.3 million children, was based on estimates and interpolations, and counts when caretakers didn't know where kids were for more than a brief period. In 1999, there were 72 million minors in America; there are about 74 million today.

But despite the report's clear tone and explanation, and even a well-written FAQ at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, these top-level numbers are typically cited as the rate at which children are plucked unsuspecting by strangers on their way to and from school or in other environments.

In fact, the true risk from people children don't know or who are "slight acquaintances" is extremely slim. As with most crime and violence, children are exposed to the greatest risk either because of family members or their own choices.

Even though the report is 13 years old and covering 16-year-old data, it's worth walking through its numbers, because they are the ones you'll see cited even now in newspaper stories, magazine articles and cable TV segments. (If you add some of the numbers below, you'll see some total percentages above 100 because some kids fit multiple categories in a single year.)

About the half of missing children — reported or otherwise — are runaways (their choice) or throwaways (kicked out without a place to go). These kids are at high risk of violence and various forms of exploitation, although the latter risk is overstated, as I'll get to in a later article.

Most of the rest of the reports and estimates fall into "benign explanation" (43% of reported), in which the child isn't missing, but a caretaker thought they were. Another good-sized chunk, 8% of reported, are kids who were lost or injured — not intentionally missing and no other party was responsible. The number of custodial violations, in which a family member takes a child away without permission (involving force if aged 15 to 17), is nearly 120,000 (9%) from the survey estimates and 57,000 of the reported cases (7%).

That leaves the category that one should ostensibly actually worry about: nonfamily abductions, in the terms of the study. Nonfamily abductions include those who the child knows, like a former but non-related domestic partner of a parent, a teacher, a neighbor, and so on, as well as strangers. The definition includes taking a child of any age without permission for more than an hour through a threat of violence or actual harm. For kids 15 or younger, harm or threats aren't required, but an intent of concealing the child's whereabouts, holding the kid for ransom, or expressing "the intention to keep the child permanently" is necessary.

The study found 12,000 children reported missing in this category (2%) and 33,000 from the broader estimate (3%). The larger 33,000 figure represents about 5 children out of 10,000, although both figures need additional scrutiny. (The report doesn't look at harm caused during abduction, such as sexual assault or other injuries.)

Stereotypical kidnapping, however, is a more a strictly typed subset, and it's the bogeyman in every parents' dreams. The report categorizes it as:

…when a stranger or slight acquaintance perpetrates a nonfamily abduction in which the child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom, abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.

Of nonfamily abductions, just 115 children (90 reported) in 1999 were estimated to fit a stereotypical kidnapping by a stranger or slight acquaintance. Forty of those were killed. That's 1 child out of every 750,000 kidnapped, and 1 out of about every 2 million killed.

Of all children reported missing (whether the estimate or based on reports), 99.8% were returned home or located; the remaining number were virtually all runaways.

Family, through noncustodial abduction or kicking a child out; a child's own action as a runaway, for whatever cause and for whatever duration; and accidents are most of these reports. All of these problems can be mitigated by various means, but none of them fit into our picture of not letting a kid walk down the street because she or he will be snatched.

Every 40 Seconds, a Statistic Is Misused

You wouldn't know any of this from reading typical parental advice regarding stranger danger. Parents magazine offers a rundown of abduction danger that states, "Every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted."

This is seemingly accurate, but the lead in is, "The first step in protecting your child from potential abductors is to know what you're dealing with." Given that a sliver of the problem are classical abductors, it's hard to see how this helps.

Parents magazine notes:

Only about one child out of each 10,000 missing children reported to the local police is not found alive. However, about 20 percent of the children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in nonfamily abductions are not found alive.

The first number appears to be accurate, but only 1 in 100 children are reported missing each year. Further, the 20% figure isn't sourced, and the center doesn't claim that number. Rather, in its FAQ it points to a 1997 report (mislabeled as from 2006) that doesn't quite claim that, either. And by the definition of the NISMART study cited earlier, the rate of death relates to stereotypical kidnappings, not the broader nonfamily abduction. Thus the rates are presented in a fashion that is horribly overstated.

Lenore Skenazy has made an accidental career out of the remarkable idea that kids can make good decisions on their own most of the times, and that parents and children shouldn't live in fear. Called the "world's worst mom" after writing about letting her then 9-year-old son take the subway in New York City a short distance home by herself, she now wears this as a badge of honor. A reality TV show with that name just launched on January 22 on the Discovery Life Channel.

Skenazy says that an instinct of overcaution has been instilled in us. "We can't really go by instinct anymore, because our instinct has been corrupted by our media culture," she says. Because terrible stories about children are constantly in front of us, it inflates the perceived risk.

She calls the current attitude "worst first thinking": thinking up the worst-case scenario as the knee-jerk response to any situation, rather than a reasonable evaluation of the actual risk. "We're not allowed to make any distinctions between likely and unlikely."

There's also plenty of urban myth, that picks up where the media ends, or that media amplifies. Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Delaware, has been tracking since 1985 the myth of "Halloween Sadism": reports that people poison Halloween candy or put pins or razor blades in items handed out. It has, essentially, no basis — he has found no substantiated case — but persists, nonetheless.

Thought Crime

People send Skenazy their stories and media clippings of law-enforcement overreactions, some of which bubble up to national coverage. (Skenazy writes for the libertarian publication Reason.) She cites an appeals court decision in January 2014 in New Jersey which upheld the conviction of a mother for leaving her 19-month-old child asleep in a car for 5 to 10 minutes while she shopped.

The judge writing for the appeals panel cited a variety of potential risks: "…on a hot day, the temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly spike to dangerously high levels, just as it may rapidly and precipitously dip on a cold night."

But the day wasn't hot, it wasn't night, and the child was never in danger. The decision left open the potential for any parent to be criminally charged and convicted for leaving a child in a car up to the age of 17, as the appeals court provided no cut-off date nor other parameters. It also thought because the task wasn't urgent, that more imaginary danger should have been considered. "Because she wasn't fantasizing, she was guilty," says Skenazy.

Many states have laws that mandate the age at which a child may be left alone at home or in a car (and the duration, among other factors), or provide such broad guidance that even if it's within the law, a child could be put in foster care and a parent arrested.

In Texas, leaving a child under seven without someone 14 or over in a car for over five minutes, is a Class C misdemeanor ($500 fine, no jail time). Texas has no rules about the age at which a kid can be left at home alone, but its definition of "neglectful supervision" includes not just "bodily injury" but "substantial risk of immediate harm to the child." This leaves an awful lot of latitude for enforcement, which we've seen in practice errs towards worst first thinking.

Skenazy says there's secondary effect, too. Parents who might otherwise make sensible choices about their kids' capabilities must also factor in the worst first thinking of neighbors and strangers. "They imagine that the authorities are using that criteria when they are making a decision about your parenting," and that results in calls to protective services and the police for behavior that isn't dangerous or unreasonable.

While the legal side remains tricky, Skenazy says parents' attitudes can be changed. For her TV show, producers received submissions from 2,000 families and picked the most-anxious 13, including a mother who still spoon fed her older child and an 8-year-old only allowed to stand on a skateboard on his front lawn. Another couple accompanied their children next door to the kids' grandparents.

She spent a few afternoons with the kids without their parents, and they bloomed. But even better, "It changes the parents utterly, completely, and forever, once the kids do something on their own. What looked like bone-deep fear, that even I — I wondered why am I here and not a psychiatrist? It's socially imposed." This gives her hope.

In the second part of this two-article series, I will address the misuse of statistics around child and adult sex trafficking.

Photo: Shutterstock