By a Biometrica staffer
Today, May 25, is International Missing Children’s Day. Over one million children are reported missing every year, the International Centre For Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) says on its website. In 2020, the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) assisted law enforcement and families with more than 29,800 cases of missing children. In terms of types of cases, 91% were endangered runaways, 5% were family abductions, 3% were critically missing young adults between the ages of 18 and 20, less than 1% were non-family abductions, and 1% were lost, injured, or otherwise missing children. Of the nearly 26,500 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2020, one in six were likely victims of child sex trafficking, the organization says on its website.
NCMEC also operates the CyberTipline, a national mechanism for the public and electronic service providers to report instances of suspected child sexual exploitation. In 2020, the tip line received more than 21.7 million reports. Most of those were related to apparent child sexual abuse material, online enticement of children or “sextortion,” child sex trafficking, and child sexual molestation. But today’s piece is about a specific, alarming trend that the NCMEC highlighted in a blog just last week: An increasing number of kids are going missing after being left alone in cars, which is closely linked to a surge in vehicle thefts over the past year or so.
Since the pandemic began, 40 children left alone in cars have been abducted during vehicle thefts in which an AMBER Alert was issued, the NCMEC says. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to police, who say there have been many other cases where there was no need to issue an AMBER Alert. Once thieves realize they aren’t just stealing a car, but also a child, they ditch either the car or the child. In the last decade, NCMEC has sent out only an average of seven AMBER Alerts a year for this type of abduction, in comparison with the 40 they’ve issued since the pandemic began. The spike is being driven by a surge in vehicle thefts: There were 873,080 vehicle thefts recorded last year, the highest in more than a decade, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).
NICB analysts predict the trend will continue this year, with even more car thefts expected. “The pandemic has had a significant impact on society. Auto thefts have increased across the U.S. in almost every major city. Carjackings in major metropolitan areas such as Washington D.C., New York City, and Chicago are seeing major increases. As we examine in this issue, there are other, more systemic causes for the increase in thefts beyond individuals simply leaving their keys or fobs in their vehicles,” NICB President and CEO David Glawe said in a press release dated March 24, when the NICB released a report for CEOs in the insurance industry and law enforcement partners on the spike in auto crimes.
Before we go further, what exactly is an AMBER Alert? The AMBER Alert Program is a voluntary partnership between broadcasters, transportation agencies, law enforcement agencies, and the wireless industry to activate an urgent bulletin in the most serious child abduction cases. The acronym stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. It began in 1996, when Dallas-Fort Worth broadcasters teamed up with local police. It was created as a legacy to honor 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was kidnaped while riding her bicycle in Arlington, Texas, and was then brutally murdered.
“Fortunately, the children in the AMBER Alerts were recovered safely, but the abductions took a toll on their parents,” the NCMEC blog says of the 40 alerts mentioned earlier in this piece. Families have been juggling kids and jobs since the pandemic began, with many schools and daycare centers closed. Many may have thought it safer to leave their child, or children, in the car while they dashed off to run a quick errand, what with all the Covid-19 restrictions in place. But even a few minutes is enough for a thief to steal a car. People picking up or delivering take-out food have been particularly targeted, the NCMEC blog says, citing police.
“Please, never leave your child alone in your car, not even for a few seconds, not even if you have them in your sight. The potential for harm is enormous: a speeding get-away car, a car thief afraid of getting caught with a child, or the unthinkable,” NCMEC’s President and CEO John F. Clark said in the blog.
Recent Reports Of Such Cases
There have been several reports over just the last four weeks, too, of cases where carjackings also ended up involving the abductions of kids left alone in those vehicles.
For instance, on May 24 media reported that the suspect responsible for causing an AMBER Alert to be issued for a five-month-old baby that was inside a stolen car in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been charged by the Winston-Salem Police Department. The baby had been left inside a Volkswagon that was stolen at a Marathon gas station on Randleman Road at 9:22 p.m. on May 21, officers said. The mother and a three-year-old sibling had gone inside the gas station to ask for directions while the five-month-old slept in the car. The baby, Nora Starr Grant, was luckily found safe outside an apartment complex in Winston-Salem on May 22. Officers said they do not know how long she was outside exposed to the elements; she was taken to the hospital on a precautionary basis after being reunited with her mother, the WXII 12 report said.
In a similar incident on May 19, a vehicle was stolen from a Shell gas station on Hartford Road in Manchester, Connecticut, with a sleeping nine-year-old child inside, ABC 17 News reported. The child woke up to find the suspect behind the wheel instead of her mother and began to cry. That’s when the suspect realized there was a child in the car, pulled over, and fled in another vehicle, according to the police. Manchester Police Lt. Ryan Shea said the department has received nine reports of stolen vehicles just this week. “Luckily this incident ended well, but certainly this is a risk that we’re seeing,” he said, per the ABC report.
On May 12, wtnh.com reported that police in Waterbury, Connecticut were looking for a suspect who stole a car with a baby inside. The incident happened on May 11 at a Shell gas station on West Main Street. In this case, too, the police issued a warning for parents: “We’re starting to see a trend where people are jumping into vehicles at convenience stores, at gas stations. So, it’s not worth those extra seconds. Remove your child from your vehicle,” said Sgt. Robert Davis of the Waterbury PD.
On May 4, Wave3 News reported that a Louisville man was arrested after stealing a car from a gas station in the Highview neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, with a five-year-old inside. The mother said her daughter was inside the car when she went into a Speedway at around 9:15 a.m. When she came out of the store, she found her vehicle had been stolen. In this case too, luckily, the child was found unharmed in the car about an hour later. The suspect, Stephen Murphy, allegedly made off with the victim’s cellphone though.
On May 3, NBC Connecticut reported that two children who were in another car that was stolen from Cumberland Farms on Meriden Road are safe. When officers received the 911 call, they only knew that a five-year-old child was inside the car. But it was later learnt that a 11-year-old boy had also been in the car but had jumped out before it was driven away.
On April 30, Fox 13 Memphis reported that four suspects were charged in the abduction of a four-year-old girl from a Memphis gas station in Tennessee. The suspects are all juveniles: one is 15, another 16, and two are 17. They have been charged with the following, the report said: Especially Aggravated Kidnapping, Theft of Property $10,000 -$60,000: Motor Vehicle (2ts), Evading Arrest: to wit Vehicle Pursuit & Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Dangerous Felony. The four-year-old victim, Samaria Bassera, was actually in Memphis to receive medical treatment at St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
On April 27, 7News Boston reported on new surveillance that showed the exact moment when a thief got behind the wheel of a running car and took off with the car and a child sleeping in the back in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The child’s mother is seen coming out of Mason Grocery moments later to see her car and 2-year-old daughter were gone, the report adds. Police officers were called to the scene and were, once again, luckily able to re-unite the mother with her child. The suspect had left the car running and the child unharmed about a block away.
Fortunately, it does not appear as if there have been too many cases where unintentional abductions of children as a result of carjackings have taken a darker turn. But, even if a child goes missing only for a few hours, it’s still a harrowing experience for the families involved. Organizations like ICMEC also recognize that, and point out that it matters immensely from the perspective of being able to rescue the child.
In 2018, Biometrica had spoken with Caroline Humer, then Director of ICMEC’s Global Missing Children’s Center on missing kids. “In my opinion, a child is missing as soon as you do not know where he or she is, or where he or she is supposed to be. There is no defined period of time for how long a child must be gone before you can call them a missing child. It can be the 10 seconds you lose sight of your child at a playground or a supermarket, or it can be the 10 hours your child hasn’t come home from school… When you think your child is missing, report it immediately, don’t wait 24 hours, don’t wait two hours. Law enforcement should take the report immediately, should start an investigation immediately. A missing child is a vulnerable child,” she told us in a comprehensive interview. Humer is now Vice President of Global Alliances at ICMEC.
Even one missing child is one too many, ICMEC says – a reminder we could not agree with more on International Missing Children’s Day.