Police urge caution—not panic—after rash of kidnapping attempts

Jun 5, 2013

It’s the stuff of bad movies: a masked man snatches a toddler, tucks him under his arm and runs off. And yet the King County Sheriff’s office says that’s exactly what happened Sunday in White Center.

It was one of four attempted kidnappings reported in the area over just a few days. All the kids were returned safely, and the incidents appear to be unconnected. But the rash of seeming abduction attempts have Seattle-area police and parents on edge. But just how much should people worry? 

That turns out to be a hard question to answer. But the statistics, at least, are pretty clear. 

"These types of crimes are very rare," says Det. Mark Jamieson of the Seattle Police Department. 

There were  660 kidnappings in Washington last year. Less than ten percent were young children under the age of ten, and more than two thirds of all victims were taken by relatives or acquaintances, meaning child abductions by strangers are a tiny minority.

And yet they do sometimes happen. Det. Jamieson admits that makes it hard to know how to react.

"I don't know, I mean it's one of those things where it's -- we don't want people to get freaked out, we don't want them to alter their daily routine. Just listen to your instincts," Jamieson says. 

He said best to treat the incidents as a reminder of what we should be doing all along: talking to kids about how to react, and supervising them constantly until they show they’re ready to handle some independence.

Nationwide, there are about a thousand kidnapping attempts by strangers each year, according to the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children. When you get down to the really stereotypical kidnapping scenario, where a stranger abducts a child and transports that some distance intending either to extract ransom or never return the child, the number is much smaller: just 115 a year, says the NCMEC, compared with about 203,900 abductions by family members. 

"This is a time for parents and guardians to be vigilant, without being terrified," says Nancy McBride, the Center's National Safety Director

It's unusual for a would-be kidnapper to use violence, says McBride, as the White Center suspect allegedly did. Rather, they tend to offer candy or rides, or lure them with a sob story about something like a lost dog.

McBride advises parents to talk to kids about safety as soon as the child seems able to understand the subject. She says kids need to be taught whom they can approach for help if they get separated from parents, such as uniformed law enforcement officers, people with nametags (generally store employees) and mothers with children.

"Teaching your kid never to talk to strangers is doing a disservice to them if they ever need help and you're not there," she says. 

Note: Blue pins indicate cases in which an arrest has been made. As of June 4, no arrest had been made in cases marked by red pins.