Denver Post stories in 1985 debunked the “national paranoia” surrounding missing kids, won a Pulitzer Prize, and led to changes in the way organizations approached the issue. A quarter-century later, says the Post, authorities have a more clearly defined, technologically equipped, and well-organized response to such cases. Yet, some experts say, parental anxiety over child safety has only intensified as reports of missing kids have plummeted nationally.
Cellphones now provide kids and parents a crucial line of communication and protection. The Internet arrived, both for better and worse: Tools such as sex-offender databases give parents a heads-up, but online predators present a new threat. Law enforcement operates under revamped rules that dictate swifter action on missing kids. Every state has developed a missing children’s clearinghouse for cases. Systems like Amber Alert helpfully spread the word on a child abduction in minutes to highway signs and even your cellphone, but also subtly tap into broader parental concerns. Efforts to classify the cases more accurately have made some progress, but organizations from law enforcement to advocacy groups still put the largest, though sometimes misleading, numbers front and center. “Emphasizing missing children is a holdover from that (1980s) period and not the best way to approach these problems,” says David Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Since Amber Alerts went into effect with 2002 legislation, there have been only four Colorado cases of true stranger abductions where the intent was to harm the child.