NEW YORK Anxiety over two cases of missing children in the news this week - New York's Etan Patz and Arizona's Isabel Mercedes Celis - masks an encouraging development in the search for U.S. boys and girls who disappear: More than 99 percent now return home alive.
The likelihood of finding an abducted child has sharply increased in recent years due to technological advances in the way searches are conducted and a greater awareness that fast action saves lives, said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
That has boosted the recovery rate for missing children involved in the most dangerous cases in America to 97 percent in 2011 from 62 percent in 1990, according to the center's statistics. That rate is even higher when it includes all missing children, not just the highest-risk cases, which include abductions by a stranger or a family member wanted on a felony arrest warrant, Allen said.
"More than 99 percent of children reported missing in America in recent years have come home alive," Allen told Reuters.
The recovery rate for the estimated 115 children abducted by strangers each year, a very small but alarming segment of children reported missing annually, is less heartening. Allen said an average of 57 percent of them come home alive and 40 percent are killed. The rest remain open cases.
Questions about successful efforts to find an abducted child, dead or alive, were raised by the resumed search for Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished in 1979 near his New York City home, and an investigation into the disappearance of Celis, 6, from her Tucson bedroom last week.
Each year, 800,000 children are reported missing in America, including some who are lost, injured, have run away from home or are abducted, according to the center, the nation's leading clearinghouse of information about missing children.
Of those who are abducted, 200,000 are taken by family members, typically during a custody battle, while 58,000 involve non-family members who are familiar to the child and who typically have targeted the child for sex, Allen said.
When the kidnappings are the work of a stranger, the snatcher has typically targeted the child for sex and has studied the child's habits in order to increase chances of a successful abduction, he said.
"These are more acts of seduction than abduction, where the child goes willingly with the adult only to be victimized later," Allen said.
He said the center uses statistics and research from various law enforcement and government agencies.
The surest way to get a child home safely is to get the child's picture in front of as many eyeballs as possible as quickly as possible, Allen said. The center has employed everything from shopping bags to highway toll-booth tickets to do that.
Among the most powerful tools have been pictures posted on shopper bulletin boards at Wal-Mart stores and Amber Alerts, a public notification system that focuses on highways and is named for Amber Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996.
While thousands of children have been recovered as the result of a combination of reports, there are some who made it home alive solely as the result of an Amber Alert (572 since 1996), a Wal-Mart posting (234 since 1996), a direct mailing (153 since 1985), a nightly segment broadcast on New York's WABC-TV (10 since 1996), milk cartons (three from 1984-1985, when it was discontinued), Allen said.
Two abductions are credited with changing the way Americans treat missing children reports - Patz in 1979 and Adam Walsh, 6, who disappeared from a Florida shopping mall in 1981 and was later found murdered.
In those days, the FBI's database could be used to track stolen cars, guns and even horses but not children, and police typically instructed parents to wait 48 hours before filing a missing persons report on a child, Allen said.
The boys' highly publicized disappearances prompted President Ronald Reagan to sign into law the Missing Children's Assistance Act in 1984, sparking the start of the non-profit missing children's center and triggering enormous changes in police and public response to reports of missing children.
One major change is how quickly authorities now respond to reports of missing children, understanding that time is of the essence. Regardless of who has abducted the child, every minute counts as 94 percent of recovered children are found within 72 hours, including 47 percent found within three hours.
Today, social media such as Twitter and Facebook, whose 900 million users can access Amber Alerts fan pages, are increasingly used by law enforcement to instantaneously share news of an abduction. That has brought new hope for those still searching for the thousands of missing children who are still unaccounted for.
While speed is essential in tracking down abducted children, there are long ago abductions that end years later as in the case of Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped in 1991 at age 11 and missing for 18 years before she was found at her abductor's California home.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch, Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech)