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By the late Bill Bickel – former Managing Editor of Crime, Justice and America magazine. Originally published in 2004 and reposted with permission from Crime, Justice and America magazine

The memory of a man sitting in a red pickup truck holding a knife in one hand and trying to pull her inside with the other is forever etched into the mind of 37-year-old Kym Pasqualini. She was 8 years old at the time, walking home from school with friends in Sonora, California, a quaint little town on the northwest side of Yosemite National Park. Things like that weren’t supposed to happen in quaint little towns in rural California in 1972.


“I was with two other little girls about a quarter of a mile out in the country,” recalled Pasqualini. “The school bus had just left when a man in a red truck pulled up and asked me to come over. We were not educated back then. We didn’t know anything about stranger abductions, and so I went.

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“The authority of an adult telling me to come over couldn’t be resisted. When I got to the truck the door on the driver’s side opened and the man had a knife in his right hand and he tried to pull me in with his left.” Pasqualini was lucky. She managed to pull away form the stranger and run, with her friends close behind her.

“We ran through a barbed wire fence, across a pasture and a creek,” she said. Today, Pasqualini is president of the Phoenix chapter of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization, a clearinghouse for information about missing children. NMCO is one of 29 similar organizations around the nation recognized by the U.S. Department of Justices’ Missing and Exploited Children agency. It is also the largest, and recently received federal funding in the amount of $1.7 million to expand its service to include not only missing children but also missing adults.

“My near abduction has haunted me to this day,” Pasqualini said. “I survived, but many other children from that area of Northern California who fit my description and age bracket are still missing. “Just recently I pulled out a map of California and I backtracked older cases from the area where I lived, highlighting them on the map. I don’t have information about bodies, or how many of the cases were only near abductions. But I’m one of 15 or 16 little dots on the map where incidents involving children took place.”

Or Runaway

Pasqualini narrowly escaped becoming a gruesome statistic, but ultimately she fell into another class of missing person – the runaway child. “I started running away from home at age 12,” she said. She said her parents divorced. Her father remained in California. Her mother moved to New York City. Pasqualini lived on the streets, or with friends or relatives.

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“The majority of missing children are either those abducted by parents (in child custody cases) or are runaways,” she said. By the time she was 14, Pasqualini no longer lived at home with anyone. She spent a lot of time hitchhiking and sleeping in parks. “I became a survivor. I survived sometimes by making friends my own age and going to their house to eat during the day,” she said. “At night I would sleep under staircases or out in the cold.”

She drifted down to Phoenix from California because most of her relatives lived there. Sometimes she stayed with them, but not often. “I feel like I probably am lucky,” Pasqualini said. “Working where I do, every day I see girls prostituting themselves. I never turned to that. And I was never raped. There were a couple of incidences where you question whether or not the person who gave you the ride had other intentions, only their timing wasn’t right.”

By age 17, Pasqualini was living on her own in a residential setting with other people. “I had a child very young,” she said. “I worked a couple of jobs at the same time to survive. I went to college and got into graphic arts.” Eventually, she got married and moved to New York City and became a housewife.

One day in early 1994, she was watching a television talk show. Two parents were talking about their missing children, a conversation that deeply affected Pasqualini. “Listening to them really motivated me,” she said. “It opened up my life, to see what parents go through in the aftermath of a missing child.” She decided to start an organization whose basic purpose would be to help find missing children and provide support for the parents and law enforcement, similar to foundations begun by John Walsh and Marc Klaas.

The Searchers

Following the 1993 kidnapping and murder of his daughter, Polly, Marc Klaas created the Polly Klaas Foundation in Petaluma, California. In 1984, Walsh created the first major private, non-profit organization devoted to finding missing children — the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). His 6-year-old son, Adam was abducted in Florida in 1981 and murdered.

NCMEC serves as a focal point in providing assistance to parents, children, law enforcement, schools, and the community. They focus on recovering missing children and raising public awareness about ways to help prevent child abduction, molestation, and sexual exploitation. NCMEC has worked on more than 73,000 cases of missing and exploited children, helped recover more than 48,000 children, and raised its recovery rate from 60 percent in the 1980s to 91 percent today. In 1989, NCMEC had a staff of 40. Today, it has 125 employees.

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“It’s very common for family members, or even victims themselves, to become activists for missing children,” Pasqualini said. “I guarantee you, Susan Levy will be an outspoken force in the arena of missing children” Susan Levy is the mother of Chandra Levy, the 24-yearr-old Modesto woman who was murdered last year in Washington D.C. She is alleged to have had an affair with Representative Gary Condit, whose political career was ruined following intense scrutiny of the relationship. He has never been listed as a suspect in the case.

Pasqualini was living in New York City when she started NMCO in March 1994. She returned to Phoenix in November of that year, where for eight years she has worked to reunite missing children with their parents. “A missing child is one of the most horrifying, traumatic experiences you can imagine,” she said. “It’s even worse than death. It is easier to deal with death than not knowing the whereabouts of your child. Families spend every day wondering — wondering if the child is safe, is alive or dead.

“And then there is the guilt they feel about not having protected the child.” Pasqualini said families often begin to deteriorate after a child has been missing over a long period of time. “It’s a severe emotional and physical strain on all of the family members, and often they are unable to deal with everyday life,” she said. “They may lose their jobs and their relationships. Other children in the home may be overlooked and suffer emotional stress because the parents’ focus is all on the missing child.”

Among The Missing

One of the most recent high profile, missing-child cases in California was that of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, who was reported missing from her family’s San Diego home February 2, 2002. Almost a month later, her nude, decomposing body was found on a rural road east of the city. A neighbor, David Westerfiled, 50, has been charged with her murder. Meanwhile, authorities still are looking for 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, of Salt Lake City, who was abducted at gunpoint from the family home on June 5, 2002.

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According to the latest information provided by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), in 2001 almost 850,000 people (adults and juveniles) were reported missing to the police and entered into the FBI’s NCIC files. Experts estimate that children and youths comprise 85-90 percent of missing person reports. Using that estimate, the total number of missing children reported to the police and entered into the NCIC was about 725,000 last year.


A bulletin issued in 2000 by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention defines kidnapping as “an occurrence in which a person is taken or detained against his or her will, whether or not the victim is moved.” Kidnapping is not limited to the acts of strangers, noted the bulletin, but can be committed by acquaintances and — increasingly true in recent years — by parents who are involved in custody battles.

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The kidnapping of children has generated a great deal of public concern, not to mention confusion and controversy, according to the Justice Department. Part of the problem has been confusion about the definition of kidnapping, said a department spokesman. While lengthy ransom abductions and the tragic recovery of bodies have molded the public’s perception of the crime, officials say, in a strict legal sense, kidnapping also involves both short-term and short-distance displacements, acts of kidnapping by a relative of the victim or “family kidnapping,” kidnapping by an acquaintance of the victim, and kidnapping by a stranger to the victim.

Family kidnapping is committed primarily by parents, and involves a larger percentage of female perpetrators (43 percent) than other types of kidnapping offenses. It occurs more frequently to children under 6, equally victimizes juveniles of both sexes, and most often originates in the home.

Stranger kidnapping victimizes more females than males, and occurs primarily in outdoor locations. Victims can be both teenagers and school-age children, and it is associated with sexual assaults in the case of girl victims and robberies in the case of boy victims (although not exclusively so). It is also the type of kidnapping most likely to involve the use of a firearm.

Kidnapping makes up less than 2 percent of all violent crimes against juveniles reported to police. According to the Justice Department, the kidnapping of juveniles is a relatively rare crime, constituting only one tenth of 1 percent of all the crimes against individuals, 1 percent of all crimes against juveniles, and 1.5 percent of all violent crimes against juveniles. Kidnapping is overshadowed by the more common crimes of simple and aggravated assault, larceny and sex offenses.

According to the Justice Department, kidnapping involves very different dynamics and motives, depending on the identity of the perpetrators and age of the victim. Previous research and current public policy divide kidnapping two categories — family abductions and non-family abductions

A Family Affair

Parents, who, in the course of custodial disputes, take or keep children in violation of custody orders, are usually responsible for family abductions. Researchers Dr. David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire, Dr. Gerald Hotaling of Lowell University and Dr. Andrea Sedlak of Westat, Inc., have discovered in the past decade that family abductions are becoming an increasing a problem.

Ernie Alen, in a paper The Crisis of Family Abductions, reports that in 1988 there were more than 350,000 children kidnapped by one of their parents. According to one study, Alen said, in 4 percent of all cases — or approximately 14,000 cases — the child experienced serious physical harm. In another 4 percent of all cases, the child experienced physical abuse. And in approximately 1 percent of all cases — or 3,500 cases — the child experienced sexual abuse.

Thus, Alen wrote, taking the most conservative interpretation of the data, there are at least 70,00-75,000 children every year in the United States who are seriously harmed as a result of parental kidnappings. According to Alen, the motive in a great majority of those cases for parental abduction was not love, but more often anger and/or revenge.

Dangerous Strangers

Non-family abductions are generally thought to primarily involve strangers. In a report in 1999 by Susan S. Kreston, senior attorney for the Justice Department’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, Child Abduction/Sexual Exploitation, Kreston observed that every year there are over 100,000 attempted abductions of children by non-family members (including strangers and acquaintances) in the United States. The number of successful attempts is between 3,200 and 4,600.

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Abductions by strangers who are completely unknown to the child are, in fact, rare — between 200 and 300. About half of those children abducted by strangers are murdered. Of those, the vast majority (74 percent) is dead within three hours of the abduction, according to Kreston. The primary motive in the child abduction murder is sexual assault.

Seventy-six percent of those kidnapped and murdered were girls with a median age of 11. In 80 percent of the cases, the initial contact between the killer and the victim was within half a mile of the victim’s residence and the majority of cases (57 percent) were based solely on opportunity.

The most common way to attempt kidnapping was inviting a child to get into a car. Other lures that are commonly used involve requests for assistance, invitations to see pets or requests to help look for them, claiming that an emergency has happened, name recognition of the victim, an authority figure (such as a police officer or firefighter) telling the child to accompany him or her, and computer solicitation for meetings.

Over half of the abductions that led to murder occurred within three city blocks of the child’s home. Approximately one-third occurred within one-half block.

Christine O. Gregoire, attorney general of the state of Washington, recently submitted a report to the Justice Department in which she noted that the average age of killers of abducted children is around 27. They are predominantly unmarried (85 percent) and half of them (51 percent) either live alone (17 percent) or with their parents (34 percent). Half of them are unemployed and those that are employed work in unskilled or semi-skilled labor occupations. Therefore, the killers can generally be characterized as “social marginals,” according to Gregoire.

Almost two-thirds of the killers (61 percent) had prior arrests for violent crimes, with slightly more than half of the killers’ prior crimes (53 percent) committed against children. The most frequent prior crimes against children were rape (31 percent of killers) and other sexual assault (45 percent).

Most of the victims of child abduction murder are victims of opportunity (57 percent). Only in 14 percent of the cases studied did the killer choose his victim because of some physical characteristic of the victim. Once the murder investigation has begun, the police know the name of the killer within the first week in 74 percent of cases. Likewise, it is not uncommon for the police to have contact with the killer before he becomes a primary suspect, for example, during the initial neighborhood canvass, Gregoire noted.

Keeping Children Safe

Even though child abduction murders are rare events, the thing for parents to do is to eliminate, or minimize, the opportunity of their children to become victims, authorities say. Gregoire says the first step is to be aware that children are not immune from abduction because they are close to home. The greatest single thing parents can do is to be certain that their children are supervised, even if they are in their own front yard.

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Parents need to be aware of strangers and unusual behavior in their neighborhoods. They need to have the presence of mind to observe and to write down descriptions of people, vehicles, and license numbers.

People who don’t realize a crime is being committed witness many child abductions. For example, when a citizen observes an adult pulling a struggling child in a public place, it’s easy to interpret the event as a guardian taking control of an unruly child. In fact, in most instances, that’s exactly what it is. However, nothing prevents a citizen from evaluating the circumstances closer, perhaps intervening, and noting descriptions and license numbers.

The NCMEC says, while it’s good advice to tell children to stay away from strangers, the advice provides limited protection. Children are more often abducted or exploited by people who have some type of familiarity with them, but who may not be known to the parents. NCMEC explains that the term “stranger” misleads children into believing they should only be aware of individuals who have an unusual or slovenly appearance. Instead, it’s more appropriate to teach children to watch out for certain situations or actions, rather than certain kinds of individuals.

NCMEC offers the following advice to help prevent child abduction:

  • Teach your child his or her full name, address (including city, state and zip code), phone number (including area code); and their parents’ names, work addresses and phone numbers.
  • Make sure children know how to use both a push button and rotary-dial telephone, and how to make an emergency call and a long-distance call.
  • The child should never tell anyone over the phone that he or she is home alone, and never open the door to strangers when home alone.
  • Children should know whose homes they are allowed to enter.
  • Teach the child not to look for you if he or she becomes separated from you while shopping or in a public place. Instead, the child should be taught to immediately go to the nearest checkout counter, security office, or lost and found. The child should tell the person in charge that he or she is lost and needs help in finding a guardian. And the child should never go to a parking lot alone.
  • Teach the child to walk and play with others, and to use the buddy system. If your child walks to school, have him or her walk with other children.
  • The child should know that adults do not usually ask children for directions or help, but should be asking other adults. If someone in a car does stop to ask for directions, the child should not go near the car.
  • If someone is following the child on foot or in a car, the child should go to a place where there are other people — to a neighbor’s home or into a store, for example.
  • A child should never go near a car with someone in it, or get into a car without the parent’s permission. The child should learn whose car he or she is allowed to ride in. Warn your child that someone might try to lure him or her into a car by claiming you said to pick him up. Tell the child never to obey such instructions. Instead, the child should go back to the school for help. Share a code word with your child, known only among family members. Stress to your child that anyone offering a ride unexpectedly — even a family friend — will have been given the code word in advance.
  • Teach your child to tell you if any adult asks him or her to keep a “secret.”
  • Teach your child to yell, “This is not my parent!” if someone tries to take him or her away.
  • Children should be home before dark, avoid dark or abandoned places, and stay away from adults who are waiting around a playground — particularly an adult who wants to play with them and their friends.

There are actions the parent can take to decrease the chances their child will be abducted. NCMEC suggests:

  • Never leave a child unattended, in a car or anywhere else.
  • Know your child’s friends and their parents. Be involved in your child’s activities.
  • Listen when your child tells you he or she does not want to be with someone; there may be a reason you should know about.
  • Notice when someone shows your child a great deal of attention and find out why.
  • Be sensitive to changes in your child’s behavior or attitudes.
  • Encourage open communication. Never belittle any fear or concern your child may express to you.
  • Keep a complete description of your child, including hair and eye color, height, weight, date of birth, and other identifying characteristics (such as glasses, braces, pierced ears, birth marks).
  • Take a photograph of your child every six months (four times a year for children under age 2). Head-and-shoulder portraits taken from different angles are preferable.
  • Know where your child’s medical records are located (and learn how to access them if the need arises). These records could contain valuable information to help identify your child.
  • Make sure your dentist keeps up-to-date dental records of your child. If you move, get a copy of your child’s dental records.
  • Have your child’s fingerprints taken by your local police department. Do not attempt to make the prints yourself.
  • Have a set plan outlining what your child should do if you become separated while away from home.
  • Do not buy items that have your child’s name on them such as hats, jackets, and t-shirts.
  • Make a game of reading license plate numbers. By learning the various numbers and state colors your child will be able to recognize license plates.
  • Be sure their day care center or school will not release children to anyone but their parents or someone designated by their parents. Instruct the school to call you if your child is absent.
If Your Child Is Missing

If a child is missing, the NCMEC recommends:

  • Act immediately. Search your house thoroughly, including closets, piles of laundry, in and under beds, old refrigerators; or wherever a child might hide, fall asleep, or get trapped.
  • If you still haven’t found your child, think where he or she could have gone. Check with your neighbors, your child’s friends and school; if you are divorced, call your ex-spouse.
  • If you still haven’t found your child, call the police and start procedures immediately. Provide as much precise information as possible, including the clothing your child was wearing when he or she disappeared. If your child is under 13, is mentally incapacitated or drug dependent, police response may be expedited.
  • Make sure the police put information about your child into the Nick’s Missing Persons File to ensure that any law enforcement agency in the country will be able to identify your child. If your local police refuse to do this, the FBI will enter your child’s name into the NCIC computer. There is no waiting period for entering a child’s information, and this entry will not give your child a police record.
  • After notifying local police, call the NCMEC toll-free hotline to report your child missing. One of their technical advisors may be able to follow up with you and the police department during the investigation. The number is 800-843-5678. For the hearing impaired, the number is 800-826-7653. People can also use these numbers to offer information on a missing child.
  • Look for clues at home that may help you to find your child. Check your child’s room for notes, letters or missing clothing. Check your telephone bill: Are there any unfamiliar long-distance calls that may indicate where your child might have gone? Request duplicate bills if necessary.
  • Look for clues in your neighborhood. Ask the postal carrier, local storekeepers, building employees, and anyone who might have been on the street and seen your child. Check arcades and “hangouts;” inform area hospitals, drug-treatment cents, and children’s shelters that you are looking for a missing child.
  • Look for clues at your child’s school. Speak to teachers, the principal, the guidance counselor; talk to your child’s friends and enlist their help.
  • Check out all areas of your child’s life: adults, peers, clubs, your church or synagogue. Talk to any adult your child might have looked up to. Explore any interests or activities your child pursued that would introduce him or her to new people. Tell everyone and anyone that your child is missing and ask for their help.
  • Canvass distant friends and relatives to whom your child might have gone.
  • In urban areas, have searches made of locked or generally inaccessible areas such as roofs, basements, and garages.
  • Alert the police of any bus and train terminals, airports, parkways, and national parks near your home — particularly if your child might try to reach a divorced parent, camp friend, or favorite vacation area.
  • If there has been tension between you and your child, tell friends, neighbors, relatives and authorities who may speak to him or her to convey a message of love and say you only want the child to return home safely.
  • If your child calls, communicate love and concern for his or her safety — not fear, and not anger.
  • Publicize your child’s disappearance: make flyers using a recent, clear photograph and a description that includes sex, age, height, weight, eye and hair color, any identifying marks or scars, and details of clothing and jewelry when last seen. At the top of the flyers, put “Missing” or “Have You Seen This Child” in bold letters. Give the name and phone number of a law enforcement office that can receive calls around the clock. Post these flyers in store windows, at shopping malls, anywhere you can. Enlist the support of local newspapers and television stations, and drop off or mail flyers to all area hospitals and other treatment centers.
  • f you employ a private investigator, get references and check them carefully. Call your state’s licensing bureau, the Better Business Bureau and your local or state consumer protection agency regarding the investigator’s standing.

And, as overwhelming as this list may seem, you need to do it all as quickly as possible. Police agree that time is not usually on your side in this type of an investigation. The more time passes, the less likely the child will be found, or found unharmed.

Disclosure: Generative AI Created Article

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