That case confirmed the difficulties that parents seemed to face and, like the Charley Ross affair before it, the Lindbergh case led to reinvigorated attempts to change laws and institutions in response. In this instance, the federal government enacted the first national kidnap statute (the Lindbergh Law) quickly after the abduction. That law was meant to punish perpetrators to the maximum degree by declaring such crimes to be capital offenses, and its violators subject to the death penalty.

When child abduction once again came to national attention as a painful and threatening problem in the late 1970s and 1980s, it came with a similar sense of the inadequacy of law and law enforcement, the helpless grief of parents, and the public's fascination with the crime. It could also draw on the ubiquitous presence of television news in American homes.

And it came with a new and horrifying twist. Fears of sexual abuse and sadistic impulses—not ransom demands—now came to define the nature of the crime and the terror that parents experienced in contemplating the harms threatening their children.

The sexual abuse of child kidnap victims had always lurked as a possibility. This was the case, for example, when Bobby Franks' body was discovered in 1924 and Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb were accused of disfiguring him with acid. But Americans had usually understood this possibility as a danger that was secondary to the ransom that motivated these crimes in the first place.

By the 1950s, however, Americans began to change how they perceived the motives for child abduction. Ransom as a motive for kidnapping receded as sexual abuse and rape became more public and familiar themes in society.

The threat of abduction became even more powerful. It was now a crime to be feared by the vast majority of parents, not just those who were likely to be targeted because of their wealth. Once sexual violation or other sadistic practices, which likely led to the victims' deaths, were seen as motives for child disappearance, all parents became vulnerable because all children could be victims of such crimes.

This is exactly what happened in the late 1970s and 1980s when Americans experienced a great panic in regard to child kidnapping. Fears about the sexual abuse of children—both real and perceived—grew sharply in the turbulent context of the more liberated sexual behaviors following the 1960s, the widespread employment outside the home of married women with children during the 1970s, and the greater openness and discussion of homosexuality at the time.

By the 1980s, as a result of the publicity surrounding a series of kidnappings of young boys—Adam Walsh, Etan Patz, Kevin White, and Jacob Wetterling; children who lived in all parts of the country and in communities large and small—Americans began to register intense fears about child abductions as sexual crimes.

During this period, parents of victims created foundations to commemorate the victims and to assist in finding other children and brought the subject to the attention of national authorities, including congressional panels. They helped to stimulate the passage of laws that authorized new FBI oversight and provided funding for a new agency, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The subject also became central and dominant in public discussions about policing and public responsibilities, as well as in private conversations among parents, in schools, and in community forums.

In order to bring maximum attention to the subject, individuals and victims' organizations often publicized the prevalence of the crime by combining numbers for all missing children, including those taken by parents and those who had run away. At various points in the 1980s, Americans were led to believe that as many as a million children a year were missing and presumed to be the subjects of stranger abductions.

These statistics increased the sense of urgency and inflamed the dread of parents, children, and others concerned with child safety. By the 1990s, careful analysis by the Justice Department distinguished among these dangers to children, emphasizing the much smaller number of stranger abductions.

By then, however, child abduction had become a fixture of popular culture as posters, Advo cards, billboards, movies, books and magazine articles, television programs, and various other forms of media attention had made child abduction and fears about "Stranger Danger" into a national obsession. The ordeal of Elizabeth Smart, for example, quickly became a book, a made-for-TV movie, and fodder for multiple magazine covers.

The fears rapidly altered child rearing patterns. By the 1990s, parents began to register their distrust of institutions that had developed to supplement the parental supervision of children—such as teachers at child care centers, baby sitters, sports coaches, Boy Scout leaders, and even Santa Claus—as the panic about child sexual abuse spread. Increasingly, whenever they could do so, parents kept their children under tight supervision, walking or driving them to school, and restricting a once more casual attitude toward informal play.

Kidnapping was the most extreme of the many dangers that parents feared. As the sexual abuse of children seemed to have become rampant, or at least as its social existence became more generally acknowledged, child kidnapping became a symbolic expression of these concerns and a growing distrust of strangers.

States and communities throughout the country instituted new laws in response. Named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, raped and killed by a neighbor who lured her into his house to play with his puppy, Megan's Laws became part of the repertoire of police departments and community vigilance. These laws required sexual offenders to be listed on registries available to everyone in the community.

Other new laws targeted "pedophiles" (adults sexually interested in children) who were now assumed (rightly or wrongly) to be responsible for almost all stranger kidnappings. These included limits on where those convicted of sexual offenses against children could live, the institution of longer prison sentences, supervision with electronic devices, and institutionalization even after prison terms had been fully served. All of these were responses to the perception and evidence that pedophiles could not be reformed or cured.

When Jaycee Lee Dugard was found to be living quietly in a makeshift structure in the backyard of her abductors' house in Antioch, California in late August 2009, part of the public's outrage resulted from the fact that Phillip Garrido was a registered sex offender on federal parole.

Despite the many regulations and required registrations now in place, and the fact that he had lived in this house for years, Garrido's crime had gone undetected by any of the many policing agencies who could have discovered Jaycee's presence. Jaycee's return exposed once again how insecure American children appeared to be even in the most rigorous and seemingly stringent legal environments that now defined the landscape.

Women and Kidnapping

Another surprising and worrisome feature of the Jaycee Dugard case was that Jaycee had been abducted, hidden, and apparently abused with the compliance or active participation of Nancy Garrido, Phillip's wife. The same had been true for Elizabeth Smart.

But Americans should not be surprised that women can participate in child kidnappings. Throughout the twentieth century, women have been caught stealing children (usually infants) they hoped to raise as their own. Childless themselves, they are often eager to please their husbands or boyfriends and lead them to believe that they had themselves given birth to the child.

Clearly, the Dugard kidnapping departed from this pattern, but it does point up how our expectations regarding the motives for and perpetrators of kidnapping can frequently be upended. Women can and do kidnap children. This third type of kidnapping is rare, but it has occurred with regularity throughout the century.

It also refutes the assumption that women would not abuse or harm children. Even instances in which children are kidnapped by their mothers demonstrate that women can participate in a crime that can harm both children and their parents.

Child Abduction in America, Past and Present

Child kidnapping is deeply implicated in modern life and the complex nature of American experience. It has become an important feature of our culture in the widespread attention that it receives and in the haunting fears that it has created among parents and children.

It has also painfully affected the victims of a wide variety of child disappearances, those committed for ransom, children taken by parents or family members, and those carried out by strangers whose motives are varied and unpredictable.

Kidnappings have taken place in many places and times throughout history, and they are part of fairy tales and folk legends. How we respond to them reflects our beliefs about the value of children, the responsibilities of parents, the nature of sexuality, gender, and law.

Americans today are not only the inheritors of traditions and practices surrounding kidnapping that go back to the disappearance of Charley Ross in 1874, but also of a wider human propensity to worry about our children's safety.

Over time, our perception of the crime in the United States has changed as we have re-imagined its motives and the harms done to victims. The crimes too have changed as those seeking publicity have altered their own criminal behavior.

Parental kidnappings in particular have increased by leaps and bounds over the twentieth century.

But what has grown most greatly and inexorably in the past century and a half is our alarm and anxiety that our children are more vulnerable than they once were and our sense that parents must somehow protect and defend them ever more vigilantly against the lurking threats of modern life.


More from the Author

For more on the history of child abduction and the history of children in America by Paula Fass, see Kidnapped: A History of Child Abduction in the United States, (Oxford University Press, 1997), Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, (Thomson/Gale, 2004) and Children of a New World: Society, Culture, Globalization , (New York University Press, 2006)