Child Kidnapping in America

Jaycee Dugard was found in August, 2009 18 years after her abduction. While most child abductions by strangers do not end so well, historian Paula Fass points out that stranger abductions comprise only a small percentage of child kidnapping cases even though they receive the lion's share of media attention. Fear over stranger abductions has grown in the United States since the 19th century, and often results more from general fears about society than the actual safety of individual children.

Jaycee Dugard was found in August, 2009 18 years after her abduction. While most child abductions by strangers do not end so well, historian Paula Fass points out that stranger abductions comprise only a small percentage of child kidnapping cases even though they receive the lion's share of media attention. Fear over stranger abductions has grown in the United States since the 19th century, and often results more from general fears about society than the actual safety of individual children.

Editor's Note

It was a strange and haunting coincidence. Jaycee Dugard was rescued from the husband and wife who kidnapped her 18 years ago in California at virtually the same moment Elizabeth Smart confronted her kidnapper in a Utah courtroom. Once again, the nation was riveted by the phenomenon of child kidnapping. As historian Paula Fass describes, child abduction, and our reactions to it, have a long history in the United States. This month she puts kidnapping in historical perspective.

Readers may also be interested in these recent Origins articles, The Real Marriage Revolution and The Politics of International Adoption.

Across the United States this autumn, Americans watched intently the unfolding of two highly publicized cases of child abduction.

The kidnappers of Elizabeth Smart were at last brought to trial for their crimes after years of being declared mentally unfit. Fourteen years old at the time, Elizabeth had been taken from her bedroom in June 2002 and found nine months later held captive by a Utah couple; the husband styling himself a prophet of God.

More astonishingly, Jaycee Lee Dugard returned after eighteen years of captivity at the hands of a northern California couple who had abducted her as an 11 year old. Jaycee had two children during her confinement, and the case included many strange features that resulted from the fact that she had lived for so long with the man who had abducted and raped her and kept her as his daughter.

Over the past one hundred and forty years, Americans have experienced regular periods of intense public anxiety about child abduction. These episodes of alarm often have as much to do with how Americans perceive or characterize child abduction as with the actual number of such crimes. These perceptions influence what the public imagines is most dangerous to children in the society.

Although most citizens today are rarely aware of it, their own fears and responses to child kidnapping have been shaped over the years by a series of historical developments: especially the growth of modern media, changes in family patterns and expectations for parents, and structures of policing and law. When parents today express horror (and fascination) about the terrible ordeal of Jaycee Dugard, they are following a tradition that began in 1874.

When Charles Brewster Ross (known as Charley) was kidnapped on July 1, 1874, he was certainly not the first child to be kidnapped in the United States. But, unlike the others who preceded him, his parents were able to turn Charley's abduction into a national cause and to bring their plight and their son's story to national attention.

They did so because they were well connected politically, well-off economically, and because Charley's father's (Christian Ross), initially refused to pay the (then) enormous ransom demand of $20,000 (only in part because he did not have the money). This refusal brought him a torrent of negative commentary and helped to define for the future what Americans expected of parents caught in such terrible situations.

Christian Ross responded by writing a book in which he explained himself and described his personal anguish at the loss of his son and the toll it took on his family. The resulting publicity about the father's role and his obligations to his son helped to carry the story of the "lost boy" far and wide (and well beyond the United States) and made Charley Ross famous.

The publicity made his retrieval into a national obsession. To this day, Charley's fate remains unknown despite decades of efforts and the tantalizing revelations of one burglar moments before his death that he had been involved in the kidnapping and knew the boy's whereabouts.

All the attention on Charley's disappearance also raised a completely new awareness about the crime of child abduction and the inadequacy of laws to cope with it, and put a spotlight on the need for new forms of child protection.

The public revulsion/fascination at the threat to children's safety that characterized the Charley Ross case has been stoked and revitalized every time news of a new child abduction takes place.

Not all kidnappings are alike today, and very few children return after a long absence like Jaycee Dugard; nor were kidnappings all alike in the past. But certain patterns connect abductions over time.

Child kidnappings fall into three general types: 1) abductions by parents or family members; 2) stranger abductions by men for monetary ransom or physical exploitation and abuse; 3) children abducted by women who intend to keep and raise them as their own.

While the first kind is far and away the most common, it is the second kind of abduction—and the fear it generates—that have been most responsible for public hysteria, new public policies, and changes in parental approaches to childrearing.

Parental Abductions

By far, the most frequent form of kidnapping is abduction by a parent or family member. Today, over one quarter of a million such cases are reported annually to the authorities. Many of these are minor episodes—often misunderstandings or disagreements over custody, and they are short term.

But some parental abductions can last many years and cause enduring harm to the child (or children) and to the parents from whose care a child has been illegally removed. The most difficult cases of this kind concern children who are taken from the United States to foreign countries, where American laws, and even international agreements, are ineffective or difficult to enforce.

The number of parental abductions has grown enormously over the last thirty-five years as divorce and disputes over custody have increased in the United States and as the ease of transportation has made it possible to take children to distant places. Yet, abductions of this kind were already well known earlier in the twentieth century and even in the late nineteenth century.

In one such instance, in 1879, Henry and Belthiede Coolidge were found quarreling about their daughter on a street in Manhattan. Each parent held one arm of the child and was pulling her in opposite directions. This was the most public display of a quarrel that had been unfolding over time as each parent had previously abducted the girl from the other. The Coolidges were waiting for the final disposition of their divorce case in the courts; each hoped to be in possession of the child at that time and each accused the other of posing potential harms to the child's well being.

These accusations and actions would become well known to Americans by the end of the twentieth century as parental kidnappings (which often involve the help of other family members) have become a familiar feature of popular literature, television dramas, and abduction news and information.

Twenty years ago many of these abducted children appeared on Advo (advertising) cards delivered to millions of homes across the country, and on milk cartons. Today, they are featured on highway Amber Alerts.

Stranger Abduction

Despite the prevalence of this familial form of child abduction, what Americans fear most are "stranger abductions," by which they usually mean children abducted by male strangers.

Although this is what most Americans think of when they hear about kidnapping, it is a far less common form of child loss both today and historically. The subject has been so widely misrepresented and misunderstood that it is important first to focus on the real dimensions of the crime: to understand how it has come to represent "a parent's worst nightmare" and why the alarm is so disproportionate to the actual prevalence of the crime.

Today, children abducted by strangers represent a very small fraction of abductions—successful abductions affect between 100 and 150 children every year. This is hardly a trivial matter to those directly involved, but the perceived threat to children is far greater than the number of children affected. To understand this requires that we return to that first widely publicized stranger abduction in 1874.

The case of Charley Ross demonstrated the public's rising expectations about parental responsibilities for maintaining the safety of their children. It also exposed the very real limits of police actions in cases of this kind. This intersection between private and public responsibilities for children's welfare set the boundaries and context for kidnappings ever since.

The case also showed the growing dependence of parents of victims on the media to broadcast their loss in hopes of having the child located and returned. The Ross family was the first to widely distribute very large numbers of missing child posters (now familiar to Americans). Some of these were distributed by the circus impresario P. T. Barnum.

The Rosses were also able to use the Western Union Telegraph Company to follow leads from many places that came in as the public reported sightings of Charley (now recognized from posters as well as widely disseminated newspaper stories) in various parts of the country. Within short order, Charley Ross's name, identity, and story became deeply part of the public's imagination and inscribed in the popular culture of the time.

Christian Ross, like many parents of victims today, devoted the remainder of his life to finding his son and other missing children. The Charley Ross case was also used everywhere to change laws and increase penalties for child abduction.

The case anticipated and set the pattern for later experiences of child abductions as children's parents turned to all means to try to retrieve their children. In the process, the public became aware of and alarmed by the potential harm to their children.

Today, parents of kidnap victims remain dependent on publicity along with police cooperation. They and the public continue to seek new and more effective laws to protect children. At the same time, the frantic search for remedies, and the wide media fascination for these cases, has helped to inflame the public's sense of the dangers to children. Parents feel an acute sense of their own helplessness to deal with the crime that has come to represent one of the central anxieties of modern parenting.

An excellent illustration of these dilemmas is the hysteria that resulted in 1932 when the young son of American aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped from his home in New Jersey.

Despite the active intervention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (newly refashioned in response to the crime), which spearheaded the international hunt for the child, the full-time attention of the New Jersey state police, as well as private efforts by Lindbergh, no one was able successfully to locate Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. alive. His body was subsequently found not far from the Lindbergh home. It took years before the police tracked down his kidnapper.

Lindbergh was beloved as a national hero after his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. As an international celebrity, he was seen in larger than life terms, but despite his fame and renown he was able neither to protect his son from kidnappers nor to retrieve him alive, even after he paid the $50,000 ransom.

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)


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Suggested Reading

Best, Joel. Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child Victims. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Fass, Paula S. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fisher, Jim. The Lindbergh Case. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Greif, Geoffrey L., and Rebecca L. Hegar, When Parents Kidnap: The Families Behind the Headlines. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Hoffman, Jan. “Why Can’t She Walk to School: An Issue that Distills the Anxieties at the Heart of Modern Parenting.” New York Times, Sunday Styles, September 13, 2009, pp. 1, 14.

Jenkins, Philip. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1998).

Lanning, Kenneth V. Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis. Arlington, Va.: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in cooperation with the FBI, 1992.

Ross, Christian K. The Father’s Story of Charles Ross, the Kidnapped Child Containing a Full and Complete Account of the Abduction of Charles Brewster Ross From the Home of His Parents in Germantown, with the Pursuit of the Abductors and Their Tragic Death; the Various Incidents Connected with the Search for the Lost Boy: The Discovery of Other Lost Children, Etc. Etc. With Facsimiles of Letters from the Abductors. Philadelphia: John E. Potter, 1876.