The abduction of children for various purposes (ransom and extortion, work, sex, power, custody) has historically been a feature of many societies. In the twentieth century, these abductions became more widely publicized and came to carry very great symbolic power. As childhood itself became an enormously potent focus for social and personal anxieties, child abduction registered as a threat to ordinary people as well as to the prominent individuals to whom it once seemed restricted. The perception of the frequency of such abductions has increased markedly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, largely because childhood seems to have become more vulnerable and less sheltered while a
number of issues relating to the family have become important public concerns. The mass media have also learned to use child abduction as an issue that evokes strong emotions. In the recent past in the United States and Europe, accelerating divorce, women's growing role outside the home, and public fears about PEDOPHILIA have put a spotlight on child abduction, while dissatisfactions about class disparities in the developing economies of LATIN AMERICA has once again brought ransom abduction into international headlines.
Through most of human history and for the vast majority of people, child ABANDONMENT has been a far more serious social matter than the deliberate abduction of children. Nevertheless, in Europe and many parts of the Mediterranean world, among kings, nobles, and merchants, the abduction of children for reasons of state or alliance could be a serious means to usurp power or force large payments. And even among the general population brigandage, which often involved the threat of theft in property or children, could be a way to challenge power relationships. This kind of abduction was also practiced, on a group rather than individual basis, among native peoples in North America and Africa. Usually as a part of war strategy, the abduction of women and children was a means to augment population and under-mine the strength of competing clan or tribal groups. European colonists in North America experienced some of these abductions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as native peoples sought to defeat their enemies by absorbing their children into their own culture.
Although they also raise questions about cultural and personal identity, modern forms of abduction have been over-whelmingly individual acts that prey on personal sentiments and attachments to children rather than challenges to cultural or political domination. Thus the most common form of child abduction in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century America were kidnappings for ransom. In these cases, a child's safe return was predicated on the delivery of a large sum of money. The first such well-known abduction was of four-year old Charley Ross in 1874 in Philadelphia. But historically the case most closely associated with this type of crime, because of the enormous publicity it generated, was the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr. in New Jersey in 1932. The child's father was aviator-hero Charles A. Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic (in 1927) and his fame assured that the case would dominate world headlines for months. Ransom abductions exploited the modern Western family's attachments to children and strongly confirmed the cultural elevation of each child to the status of a precious, irreplaceable individual within the family.
Other forms of abduction also became prominent during this time. In the nineteenth century some children were abducted, usually briefly, for the purposes of begging or street entertainment, some ("Black Hand" abductions), as part of extortion demands by one crime group against another. Since the mid-nineteenth century, some abductions resulted from the desire of women to mother children they could not otherwise obtain. In the 1970s and 1980s, the abduction of the children of prominent business figures in Europe and the United States became a part of the operations of left-wing terror groups. (Such abductions also became common in Latin America at the end of the twentieth century.) The most famous of these was the abduction of the twenty-yearold newspaper heiress, Patricia Hearst, in Berkeley, California in 1974. This case lasted for several years, as the group of terrorists who kidnapped her (the Symbionese Liberation Army) engaged in a campaign against American institutions in which cause they enlisted their victim.
The most common modern form of abduction, and certainly the one with the most momentum, has been the abduction of children caught in custody disputes between parents or other family members. In these cases, children are prevented from returning to parents who either share legal custody, or are entitled to visitation rights with the child. Children in such cases are often pawns in a tense battle between parents or other family members, and they are sometimes abducted to protect them from what one parent may believe is abuse or neglect on the part of the other parent. Parental abductions became very numerous in the last third of the twentieth century, as divorce rates skyrocketed in Western societies, but they have been well known and amply documented throughout the century. At their most extreme, such abductions can result in parents not seeing their children for years. But the vast majority of these family disputes usually involve short periods of time during which the child is absent from a parent's life. A recent variant of these family kidnappings has been those which involve international abductions, the consequence of disputes between parents of different nations and cultures. The international cases are often the most aggravated and frequently result in the complete severance of relations between the parent (usually the mother) from the life and activities of the child. The situation has led to a great deal of publicity and diplomatic activity, and the creation of the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction (1988) in an attempt to both prevent and mediate disputes of this kind among signatory nations.
By the end of the twentieth century, the number of parental abductions in the United States had grown very large (the number of serious parental abductions in the United States has been estimated as close to 150,000 cases each year), and its prominence as a social problem became inter-twined with another old, but newly alarming form of child abduction–the abduction of children by strangers for sexual and sadistic abuse. Although such cases had been suspected before (for example, the abduction and murder of Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1924), by the 1970s and 1980s, several factors came together to bring these terrifying forms of abduction vividly into the public arena. These included widespread changes in sexual mores; the vastly expanded workplace participation of women with young children and attendant childcare problems; and the prominence of new victims' advocacy groups eager to pass protective legislation. Especially important in this regard were new laws introduced in the 1980s that required doctors and others invested with public authority to report all kinds of suspected CHILD ABUSE. Several cases of child abduction heavily covered by the media brought the issue to the public's attention: the kidnappings of Etan Patz (1979), Adam Walsh (1981), Kevin White (1984), Jacob Wetterling (1989), and Polly Klaas (1993). These cases, which took place in all parts of the country and in small towns as well as big cities, were a source of great alarm as the public discussion merged the various strands of the modern missing-children phenomenon into one public campaign. Children abducted by strangers (always a small number) and children abducted in custody disputes, together with runaways were all counted together as part of a newly hysterical fear about missing children.
The campaign created in the 1980s on behalf of missing children involved private foundations, as well as newly publicly funded institutions (the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1984), and it was monitored by legislative committees, a new FBI registry, and in the media. Together these created elaborate parental fears about the vulnerability of all children in America, fears fanned by proliferating posters and billboards, missing-children advertisements on milk cartons and in home mailings, new kidnapping insurance and public finger-printing efforts, and the massive news coverage of suspected cases and television programming of real and invented kidnappings.
By the 1990s, some of the furor had subsided in the United States as new information gathered by the Justice Department about the actual prevalence of stranger abductions calmed an inflamed atmosphere. But a similar kind of hysteria enveloped a number of European countries, among them Belgium, France, and Germany. In these countries, and others, a new concern with the prevalence of pedophile rings, and gruesome publicity about the discovery of the bodies of missing children spread alarm throughout European culture, hitherto largely unresponsive to the American issues of sexual stranger abductions. In 1996, 300,000 concerned Belgians gathered in a massive demonstration in Brussels to speak out against the perceived threat to their country's children, a threat they believed to have been mishandled by a corrupt police.
In the 1990s, the spread of the Internet and the possibilities that this seemed to offer for strangers to lure children from inside their own homes created a new kind of alarm about the safety of children. By the late twentieth century these fears about the safety of children was gathering in a number of places and around an assortment of issues, most of them centered on sexual exploitation. Child abduction seemed to be only the most fearsome of the many sexual dangers to which children now seemed exposed, such as sex rings in child-care centers, satanic rituals, and pedophilia in churches and other public places. The sexual exploitation of children, which is hardly a new phenomenon, became in the late twentieth century a startling symbol of parents' inability to protect their increasingly vulnerable children. Where in the past, only the rich or powerful were subject to abductions, today, all parents seem helpless before the possibility that their children, to whom they feel a deep emotional attachment, might be exploited, mutilated, or killed. The new fear haunts the early-twenty-first-century imagination, an imagination fed by a news and entertainment industry which has learned over the course of the twentieth century how best to titillate and shock the modern sensibility. Today, the child's place in that sensibility has been secured through the very threat to its well-being that child abduction seems to bring into every home.
Best, Joel. 1990. Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child Victims. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Demos, John. 1994. The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story. New York: Knopf.
Fass, Paula S. 1997. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Finkelhor, David, Gerald Hoteling, and Andrea Sedlak. 1990. Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children in America. First Report: Numbers and Characteristics, National Incidence Studies. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
PAULA S. FASS