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Common Myths About Missing People, Debunked

Most parents fear a stranger taking their child, but that's not the most common threat for a kid.

By Jill Sederstrom

It’s nothing short of a nightmare: A loved one vanishes without a trace, leaving behind only questions and heartbreak. 

How to Watch

Watch the Season 2 premiere of Found Thursday, October 3 at 10/9c on NBC.

NBC’s new drama Found follows a highly-skilled crisis management team, each member with their own knowledge of how devastating an abduction can be, working against the clock to bring the missing home. The series follows all kinds of missing persons cases, showing the many situations that can lead someone to vanish.

In real life, these kind of disappearances and abductions do happen. However, they are many common myths about missing people that still proliferate today. To set the record straight, NBC Insider spoke with experts.

Myth: Kidnappings Are Often Perpetrated by Strangers

For decades, parents everywhere have been preaching about stranger danger — but that’s not the most likely threat to a child. According to statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the most common reason for a child to go missing in 2022 was because they ran away, accounting for 25,346 cases. Family abductions made up another 1,239 cases.

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Non-familial abductions accounted for just 98 cases in 2022, and only three of those cases remained unresolved by the end of the year. 

According to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, stranger abductions are “very rare.” 

“There’s a recent Pew survey about parental concerns and you know, number four on the list of parental concerns is fear of them being abducted and that’s really not a high probability or likely event in the lives of children and it’s probably not what they should be most focused on,” he told NBC Insider.

Talking to kids about how to stay safe and avoid a kidnapping, whether it’s from a stranger or someone they know, should be part of the message parents give their kids, but Finkelhor said parents should spend more time talking about other forms of “victimization of kids” like bullying and sexual assault.

A grid of portrait prints with one missing in center

He recommends parents focus on teaching their kids how to recognize and disengage from peers or adults who are behaving inappropriately, threatening them, or exhibiting dangerous behaviors. 

Myth: A Child Who Ran Away Willingly Isn’t In Any Danger And Will Return When They’re Ready

The most frequent type of child missing person cases are often classified as runaway cases. But Rebecca Steinbach, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is quick to caution that just because a child may have willingly packed a bag or walked out on their own, doesn’t mean they are safe from danger. 

“A lot of things can happen and they’re very, very vulnerable,” she told NBC Insider. 

Children who’ve left home or the care of social services are more susceptible to child sex trafficking, homelessness, drugs, and gang violence, she explained.

“There’s a lot of different things that can happen to a child,” she said. “So until we know where that child is and until we’ve been able to say that child is safe, I think assuming a child is safe or assuming a child has not come home because they don’t want to come home can be a really dangerous myth for that child.”

Myth: If a Child is Taken by a Parent or Family Member, They Are Not in Danger 

Can a child really be in danger if they are with a parent? The answer is yes. 

“From what we’ve seen here at the National Center those kids can actually be in the most danger because you’re dealing with very emotional situations,” Steinbach said.

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Family abductions are often the result of bitter divorce battles or contentious custody disputes that have emotions running high, creating volatile situations.

In one recent case, Steinbach said US Marshals were attempting to serve a warrant on a man suspected of taking his child when he got into a shootout with authorities, while children were inside the home.

“While that may be extreme, we’ve seen car chases with the child in the car, we’ve seen other things that really raise that level of danger to the child significantly when they’re with a family member,” she said.

Myth: The End Goal Should Always Be Restoring a Missing Child to Their Home

Whether it’s a runaway case or family abduction, many believe the end goal is to restore the child to their home, but Finkelhor cautioned that may not be enough or even the right call to make. 

He argued it’s “much more important” to deal with the underlying conflict that led to the child to flee and get them the help and resources they need through a multi-disciplinary approach to address the underlying problems or concerns in the home environment.

“In custody disputes, the victimized parent may be happy they’ve got the kid back, but the kid may feel much more ambivalence about what’s going on between one parent and the other,” he said.

Myth: Someone Has to be Missing for a Certain Amount of Time Before a Missing Report Can Be Taken by Police

A common trope in the world of television and movies is the idea that someone has to be missing for a certain number of hours before police will take a report or begin an investigation, but that isn’t true. 

“There is no waiting period to report a child missing and law enforcement does need to take that missing report and to enter the child into NCIC, which is the National Crime Information Center,”Steinbach said.  “Basically it’s the system that connects all the law enforcement agencies in the country.”

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Once the data is entered into the system, law enforcement authorities in every state have access to the same information. 

Many police departments across the country have also emphasized that there is no time requirement to report a person missing. 

“If someone you know goes missing, you should report a missing person case as soon as possible. Call 911. There is no need to wait 24 hours,” The Missing wrote about the New York City Police Department’s policy. 

Myth: Most Sex Trafficking Involves Kidnapping

Popular movies like Taken show sex trafficking victims being forced into the dark world of sexual labor through kidnapping and physical force, but the reality is often a much more calculated long game. 

As Sabrina Thulander, the associate director of communications of Polaris, explained to NBC Insider, sex trafficking victims are more often “coming from a place of multiple vulnerabilities,” whether that’s poverty, homelessness, or substance use challenges.

“All of these other vulnerabilities usually drive people to situations where they can be exploited,” she said. 

Oftentimes someone who is looking to exploit a victim first establishes a trusting relationship with them and identifies their unique vulnerabilities to later use as leverage against them.

“They fill those needs to build a relationship, to build that trust, so they’ll offer housing, they will offer food, they will offer whatever the victim needs most,” she said.

It’s possible someone can even be trafficked from within their own home, sometimes by a family member who abuses their position of trust.

“It’s really, like, that emotional manipulation that they’re after that keeps victims with their traffickers and prevents them from leaving,” Thulander said.

Myth: There’s No Way You Can Help

The cast of Found

For many, missing persons cases seem like something only in headlines or fodder for Hollywood.

“It can feel like it’s a very distant issue for a lot of people,” Steinbach said. “It’s something that you watch on crime shows or you see on social media, but it’s not something that’s going to impact you or your day-to-day and for that, I would say, you’d be surprised.” 

The reality is people go missing in communities all across the country. As a result, Steinbach urges the public to be aware of what’s happening in their own community. 

“You may find yourself in a position to help a child, a child who is missing, a child who is the victim of child sex trafficking,” she said. “If there’s an Amber Alert, please look at the license plate, please look at the description because you may be that person that’s in a position to save a child’s life.” 

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