The children most at risk of attempted abduction by strangers are girls ages 10 to 14, many on their way to or from school, and they escape harm mostly through their own fast thinking or fierce resistance, according to a new national analysis.
Investigating a crime that is infrequent but strikes fear in the hearts of parents as little else does, analysts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that children who encountered would-be abductors were usually alone, often in the late afternoon or early evening.
The incidents analyzed call to mind last year's killing of Somer Thompson, 7, snatched en route from school in Florida as she ran ahead of her siblings.
The new analysis examines more than 4,200 cases of attempted but unsuccessful abductions, and it shows that children were their own best protectors. In the vast majority of the cases examined, children escaped harm through their own actions. In 16 percent of the cases, an adult stepped in to help.
"They escaped these things not through the efforts of good Samaritans, but through recognizing a bad situation and either getting away from it, avoiding it, or screaming and kicking to draw attention," said Ernie Allen, president of the missing children's center.
Allen said children targeted in abduction attempts are often preteens and teens in middle grades. More than 70 percent were girls. The largest number of cases occurred between 2 and 7 p.m. on weekdays.
Federal research shows successful abductions by strangers are relatively rare; an estimated 115 a year nationally involve children transported 50 miles or more and held at least overnight by a stranger.
An additional 21,500 stranger abductions involve other circumstances, according to Justice Department statistics. About 36,700 other abduction cases a year involve a caretaker or someone a child knows. The largest category is family abductions, with an estimated 204,000 a year.
Because of the limitations, the analysis is unscientific.
Among nearly 3,500 cases, more than 30 percent of children who escaped kicked and screamed; 53 percent ran or otherwise fled the scene. "The child should do whatever is necessary to stay out of the car, because once the child is in that car, it dramatically reduces the chances of escape," Allen said.