- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

Kidnappers are more brazen and violent in their actions than in previous years, an element that may help explain why the list of youngsters snatched by strangers this summer appears to be growing each day, even though the trend of child abduction is on the decline, missing-children advocates say.
Officials who work on missing-children cases said yesterday that the way the attackers have kidnapped the children snatching them from within their homes, as in the case of Elizabeth Smart, or from their front lawns in the middle of the day, as in the case of Samantha Runnion prompts the media to profile these cases in a much higher fashion than before.
"We've certainly had a rash of high-profile kidnapping cases this year," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, in Alexandria. "But we also need to keep those cases in context. The media focuses on cases that are dramatic, clear and unambiguous. And these are the types of cases we've had in recent months."
Georgia Hilgeman, executive director of the Vanished Children's Alliance in San Jose, Calif., agreed with Mr. Allen's argument. "We're seeing these kidnappings done in more violent ways," she said. "The attackers are more bold in how they approach these children, whether it be in front of other family members or from the children's bedrooms. And these are the types of cases that get the attention."
Federal law enforcement officials tracking missing children cases are quick to point out that the number of abductions by strangers is declining, despite the recent flurry of high-profile cases that have drawn national attention and frightened parents across the country.
The FBI has opened investigations in 62 cases of child abductions by strangers since last October, compared with 93 in 2001. There were 106 cases in 2000 and 134 in 1999, said Paul Moskal, an FBI spokesman.
"Any child that is missing is one too many," Mr. Moskal said. "I don't have a scientific answer as to why [the decline] is happening. But I think as a country we changed our focus over the last years, and our awareness about these types of cases has been heightened. And that's a good thing."
Between 200 and 300 children are kidnapped by strangers each year, compared with the more than 350,000 who are abducted each year by their relatives, Mr. Allen said. Of those kidnapped by strangers, nearly 100 are found dead.
The media frenzy on child abductions began February when 7-year-old Danielle van Dam was kidnapped from her San Diego home and found murdered. The suspect, Daniel Westerfield, is awaiting a verdict in the case.
Then, in March, there came the disappearances of Miranda Diane Gaddis, 13, and Ashley Pond, 13, two classmates who vanished from their apartment complex in Oregon City, Ore. No suspects have been named in the cases.
The coverage picked up again in June when 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted at gunpoint from her Salt Lake City home while her parents and siblings slept. Police said Elizabeth's younger sister saw the kidnapping. Police have not named any suspects in her disappearance but have questioned Richard Ricci, a handyman who worked in the Smart home the year before the abduction. Mr. Ricci has denied any involvement.
Last month, the media covered the kidnapping of 7-year-old Erica Pratt of Philadelphia, who escaped her captors by chewing through duct tape and breaking a window to yell for help. James Burns, 29, and Edward Johnson, 23, were arrested July 25 and face charges of kidnapping, robbery and aggravated assault.

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