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Who’s Missing?

A look at the children and youth most likely to go missing in America, the reasons why, and what to do about it.

Nearly half a million children go missing every year in the United States, according to the most recent data available from the FBI. Specifically, the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs confirmed that there were 464,324 children entries in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center in 2017, a number that hasn’t changed drastically in recent years.

As advocates spotlight National Missing Children’s Day on May 25, the question to ask is not just how many children are missing, but who—and perhaps most importantly, what to do about it. 

In 2017, CNN reported that roughly 35 percent of missing children were Black, and another 20 percent were Latino. (It’s worth noting that the FBI does not have data available on Hispanic children who go missing; they are simply included as “white.” The number CNN cited comes from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children). A viral photo that falsely reported the number of missing teens in D.C. last year forced a national conversation on the very real lack of media attention around children of color who go missing. 

“Research fairly consistently finds that minorities are less likely to be covered in the media as victims,” University of South Florida criminology professor Rachael Powers said in an NPR interview. “The extent of that coverage is often less. The word count in a story may be less. There may not be humanizing details.”

Missing Person Category

Part of the problem is that even though abductions or child sex trafficking cases are far more likely to make the news, the vast majority of missing children are classified as runaways—a term that advocates say can be problematic because it minimizes and overlooks the reasons why young people may have run away in the first place.

“They’re either running from something, or they’re running to something,” said sex trafficking prevention activist Tina Frundt in this CBS News report

For example, homeless youth and LGBTQ youth along with youth in foster care may be classified as runaways when they were essentially forced to leave. 

 “[M]any homeless children were kicked out by their parents, and some have no home to go back to. In fact, only one-third of these kids actually consider themselves runaways, while the rest say they were forced to leave,” the website Crixeo points out. “LGBTQ+ youth are significantly more likely to say their parents kicked them out, often because the parent disapproved of their sexual orientation.”

In Kansas last year, more than 70 children went missing from the foster care system, a number that tracks with national averages, according to The Kansas City Star. “Children in foster care are twice as likely as other children to run away,” The Kansas City Star reported.

The film “NonCritical” explores an African-American family’s search for their missing child.

Regardless of the reasons young people run away from home, the CBS story above notes that they are for more likely to be sex trafficked or lured into gangs once they land on the streets, making these missing children cases more than “just runaways.”

However, experts say reuniting children with their family isn’t always the answer. “Bringing these children home generally does nothing about the conflict and abuse that eat away at their mental health and well-being,” director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire David Finkelhor wrote in The Washington Post. 

Instead, the focus should be conflict resolution, such as family therapy, mediation, and child protection. “Better yet, it should include parenting education and other support programs that help build strong families and prevent problems in the first place,” he said.

Adding a layer of complexity to the issue of runaway youth is that students with autism are more likely to “wander” or “elope,” interchangeable terms meaning they may not be actively trying to leave their families or environment. Instead, they simply wander off by accident and subsequently get lost.

The case of fourteen-year-old Avonte Oquendo made national headlines in 2014 when he wandered away from school and was found months later in the East River. A 2012 study from Kennedy Krieger's Interactive Autism Network found that children with autism are four times more likely to wander, and 49 percent attempted to at least once after age four. 

Fortunately, these students are more likely to be recovered. Of all the children with autism who went missing between 2007 and 2017, 48 percent were recovered within one day of their disappearance, USA Today reports, compared to 14 percent of missing children at large who were recovered within one day.

Congress recently passed legislation to help prevent the problem, Kevin and Avonte’s Law, which provides grants for technology to combat the problem, like a GPS tracking device that parents can attach to their children’s clothing. President Trump signed the bill in March of this year.