Facts & Stats on Missing Children

It is estimated that 2,300 children are missing every day in the United States. Children can become missing for many reasons. The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) program identifies 5 categories of episodes that can cause children to become missing:

  • Benign reasons (i.e. misunderstandings)
  • Ran away/thrown away
  • Lost, stranded, or injured
  • Family abduction
  • Stranger abduction

The following figures on missing children have been pulled from the 1999 NISMART study. Updated commentary on these initial figures are outlined in subsequent studies in 2002 and 2013. Importantly, the 2013 study found that “no category of children with episodes that could cause them to become missing increased, and one category decreased. The 2013 rates of children with runaway or thrownaway episodes, children abducted by family members, and children who were missing because they had been lost, stranded, or injured did not differ statistically from the corresponding 1999 rates.”


Over 1.5 million children had a runaway or thrownaway episode in 1999.  Runaway cases occur when a child of 14 years or less leaves home without permission for at least one night.  For older children, a runaway is defined as a child who stay out for at least two nights. Thrownaway episodes occur when a parent or other household adult tells a child to leave the house without arranging alternative care and prevents the child from returning home.


  • Two-thirds of children are between 15 and 17 years old
  • The male-female ratio is equal
  • More than half returned home in the same week
  • 99% return home
  • 21% are physically or sexually abused at home

Why Do Children Run Away From Home?

  • 42% have family problems
  • 14% because of peer pressure
  • 5% because of drug or alcohol abuse
  • 4% because of physical abuse

Family/Parental Abductions

An estimated 203,900 children were victims of a family abduction in 1999.  A family abduction occurs when a family member takes or keeps a child in violation of the custodial parent’s/guardian’s legitimate rights.

Family/Parental Abduction Stats

  • 78% of abductors are the non-custodial parent
  • 35% of children were between 6-11 years old
  • 24% of the abductions lasted between 1 week and 1 month
  • 82% of abductors intended to affect custody permanently
  • 21% are other relatives
  • 42% of children were living with a single parent
  • 15% were living with another relative/foster parent
  • 66% were taken by a male relative

Why Do Family Members Become Abductors?

  • They are dissatisfied with custody decision in court
  • They have been denied visitation for not paying child support
  • They are protecting the child and/or themselves from abuse
  • They are angry with the break-up of the relationship
  • They are angry with the other parent’s new partner/lifestyle

Non-Family Abductions and Stereotypical Kidnappings

An estimated 58,200 children were victims of a non-family abduction in 1999.  Non-family abductions occur when someone who is not a relative abducts and detains a child without lawful authority or parental permission with the intention to keep the child permanently.  In 1999 there were also 115 stereotypical kidnappings.  A stereotypical kidnapping occurs when a stranger or slight acquaintance transports a child 50 miles or more from home and either kills the child, holds the child for ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.

Non-Family Abduction and Stereotypical Kidnapping Stats

  • 81% were 12 years old or older in non-family cases
  • 58% were 12 years old or older in stereotypical kidnappings
  • In 40% of stereotypical kidnappings, the child was killed
  • In another 4%, the child was not recovered
  • 86% of the perpetrators are male
  • The abducted children are predominantly female
  • Nearly half of all victims were sexually assaulted

What is NISMART?

The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) are conducted periodically by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency (OJJDP) to provide national estimates on missing children. The NISMART program began in response to the mandate of the 1984 Missing Children’s Assistance Act, which required the OJJDP to “conduct national incidence studies to determine the actual number of children reported missing each year, the number of children who are victims of abduction by strangers, the number of children who are the victims of parental kidnappings, and the number of children who are recovered each year.”

NISMART-1, 2, and 3 were conducted in 1988, 1999, and 2011 respectively. The information in these studies was collected through surveys of households, juvenile residential facilities, and law enforcement agencies.

To learn more about NISMART, visit the OJJDP’s website here.