Missing Persons, Missing Children Reports Drop to Lowest in Decades

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
May 23, 2019 Updated: September 21, 2020

The reports of missing persons, and missing children in particular, decreased in 2018, reaching levels unseen since the beginning of available FBI data.

Nearly 613,000 Americans were reported missing in 2018, more than 424,000 of them under the age of 18. That’s a drop of almost 6 and 9 percent respectively from the year prior and the lowest shown in available records going as far back as 1990.

The numbers had dropped precipitously from the high of more than 980,000 reported missing in 1997 to less than 628,000 in 2013, but then started to pick up again—until the drop in 2018.

It’s not clear what exactly is behind the latest decrease.

Part of the long-term downward trend may have to do with technology, said Robert Lowery, vice president for the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Most of the missing children are runaways between 13 and 17, he said in a phone interview. “A lot of these children now have, frankly, cellphones or smartphones. They’re also using social media. … The point being that parents are able to find their children themselves much quicker than they had been, before they have to engage law enforcement.”

Law enforcement techniques to locate missing children have also improved, he said.

But that doesn’t quite explain the sudden drop in 2018. Smartphones and social media have been popular among youth for more than a decade and there seems to be no indication that law enforcement techniques made a sudden advance in 2018.

“It may have been an anomaly,” Lowery said. “We’re going to continue to watch the trend.”

Link to Trafficking

While most missing persons are found, runaway children are vulnerable to exploitation, particularly sex trafficking.

“Traffickers, as well as buyers, strategically prey upon runaway children because of their mental, physical, and financial vulnerability,” according to the 2009 National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children (pdf).

“The stark reality is that the supply is never-ending … I mean, that little girl who started as a runaway on the streets in Washington state and ended up on the streets of Miami Beach as a prostitute is way too typical,” said Andrew Oosterbaan, then-chief of the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, according to the report. “There is an endless supply—and it is almost surreal to have these words leave my mouth—endless supply of victims. But that’s the stark reality.”

“The victims view running away as a way to escape an environment that they cannot control,” the report said. “It is not a coincidence that the average age of a runaway falls squarely within the age range a child is recruited into prostitution, as the victimized child who flees from home often lands straight in the welcoming arms of a trafficker posing as protector and caretaker.”

The most at-risk group are runaways from the social services system, such as foster care, group homes, or government facilities, Lowery said.

Trump Cracks Down

President Donald Trump has put a major emphasis on fighting human trafficking during the past two years. In February 2018, he signed an executive order to dismantle transnational criminal organizations that traffic and exploit people.

In April 2018, Trump signed into law the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA-FOSTA, that stopped the shielding of website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they facilitate sex ads or prostitution. Just days later, sex-trafficking website Backpage.com was taken down by the FBI.

Subsequently, the demand for online sex trafficking has dropped as the operators of smaller sites struggle to stay afloat, according to a report by a counter-human trafficking technology company.

On Dec. 31, 2018, Trump proclaimed January 2019 as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month”—after issuing a similar declaration for January 2018.

Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.