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Are there 500,000 missing kids a year? Viral post on Gabby Petito overstates number

PolitiFact | The vast majority of missing children cases are runaways, who are quickly located, an expert told us.
This Sept. 16 photo shows a Suffolk County Police Department missing person poster for Gabby Petito posted in Jackson, Wyo.
This Sept. 16 photo shows a Suffolk County Police Department missing person poster for Gabby Petito posted in Jackson, Wyo. [ AMBER BAESLER | AP ]
Published Sep. 30, 2021

As the public took an outsize interest in the missing person case of Gabby Petito, a viral image suggested that not enough attention is being paid to the many children who go missing each year.

The image depicts a streetlight shining on the words “Gabby Petito case,” while the words “.5 million missing kids a year” are in darkness.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The image overstates the number of reports of missing children in the United States each year by about 20 percent. And the number of active missing-child cases is far lower.

Petito found dead days after being reported missing

Petito, a 22-year-old white woman, was on a cross-country camping trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. On Sept. 1, Laundrie returned to his parents’ home without Petito. Petito was reported missing on Sept. 11.

On Sept. 17, authorities began a search for Laundrie after his parents told them they hadn’t seen him in three days.

On Sept. 21, authorities announced that human remains found two days earlier in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming were those of Petito, and that the cause of death was homicide.

The FBI obtained an arrest warrant for Laundrie the next day, on a charge of unauthorized use of a debit card after Petito’s death, and are still searching for him.

The media attention to the case triggered criticisms that missing-person cases involving non-white women in the West were not being covered as widely.

Missing children usually runaways

The viral image about missing children follows in a similar vein, but it gets the numbers wrong.

In 2020, 543,018 missing persons cases were entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center system.

Of those, 365,348 were age 17 or under, down from 421,394 in 2019.

The counts include children who were reported missing to law enforcement more than one time.

The number of active cases is much smaller.

The nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said it assisted law enforcement, families and child welfare agencies with 29,782 cases of missing children in 2020.

Of those, 27,072 were runaways, the vast majority of whom are located quickly, said the center’s Rebecca Steinbach. The next-largest category was family abduction, 1,396 cases.

Our ruling

A viral image that invoked the Gabby Petito case claimed there are 500,000 “missing kids a year.”

In 2020, there were 365,348 reports of missing children made to law enforcement agencies that were recorded by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. That’s down from 421,394 in 2019.

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The number of active missing-child cases is much smaller.

We rate the post Mostly False.