We interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog for an important safety reminder: Strangers may be dangerous!

It’s a nightmare scenario for parents. Your child doesn’t arrive home from school at the expected time, or you turn away for a moment—on the playground or at the shopping mall—and your child is gone. You toss rational explanations aside and immediately assume the worst… a stranger has abducted your child.

Each year 800,000 children under the age of 18 are reported missing in the United States.

Sounds like a scary big number, right? One that prompts you to invoke a serious sense of “stranger danger” into your kids at the earliest possible age.

Well, before you panic, let’s put a little perspective into that number.

The VAST MAJORITY (over 500,000) of these missing kids are run-aways or throw-aways, meaning they have either left home on their own or their parents have thrown them out of the house. Abductions by a family member account for another 200,000 missing children. 58,000 of the remaining kids are abducted by a non-family member who knows the child.

So what about that worst-case scenario of an ill-intentioned abduction by a total stranger? Fortunately, that’s a rare event, with just over 100 cases reported each year.

Still, when these abductions occur, they’re tragic… and the outcome may depend on a parent’s initial response.

Here’s what to do if your child really goes missing:

First, call law enforcement IMMEDIATELY. The first three hours are most critical when searching for a missing child. Nearly 100 abducted children are murdered each year, and in 76% of these cases the abductor kills the child within this timeframe.

Once your child has been established as truly missing, you should also contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by calling 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). Founded in 1984, this organization has helped law enforcement recover more than 188,000 missing children. They have an excellent track record, improving their recovery rate from 62% in 1990 to 97% today!

When a child goes missing, law enforcement will likely activate an AMBER alert. Officially, AMBER is a backronym for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, but the name originally referred to Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Unfortunately, her killer was never found, and her homicide remains a mystery.

To qualify for an AMBER alert, law enforcement must confirm that the abduction of a child 18 or younger has taken place and that the child is at risk for serious injury or death. There must also be a sufficient description of the child, the abductor, or the involved vehicle to issue an alert. The system is run by the U.S. Department of Justice and has recovered 656 missing children since 1996.

If you’re like me, all this talk of childhood abduction and murder has your blood boiling.

It should.

But it’s also important to keep the real risk in perspective. We want our kids to be safe, but raising them to have constant fear of ALL strangers may also have a negative impact on their mental health and quality of daily life.

Here are some tips to keep your kids safe, without going overboard:

  • Supervise internet use – 1 in 25 children ages 10-17 have received an online sexual solicitation for an offline meeting.
  • Children 5 and older shoulder be encouraged to memorize their address and phone number.
  • Keep a high-quality current photograph of each of your children.
  • Children should not go out alone and should always tell an adult where they are going.
  • Teach your kids to yell “NO!” and immediately run to a safe place if they feel threatened.

For more information, be sure to visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Mike Patrick, MD
Emergency Medicine; Host of PediaCast

Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.