Real Crime

What Drives Some People to Kidnap Children?

scared young girl
Conceptual photo of a scared young girl. Photo: Motortion/Getty Images
  • Print
  • Cite
    Article Details:

    What Drives Some People to Kidnap Children?

    • Author

      C.M. Frankie

    • Website Name

    • Year Published


    • Title

      What Drives Some People to Kidnap Children?

    • URL

    • Access Date

      July 12, 2020

    • Publisher

      A+E Networks

“I want to be somewhere else, but I am here and I must not panic,” Jaycee Dugard wrote in her memoir, which described 18 years of pain and brutality at the hands of kidnapper Phillip Garrido.

The sex-crime parolee abducted the sunny 11 year old in 1991 while she walked to her school bus stop in northern California.

“It hurts more when I try to struggle, so I try not to get away from him. Everything will be okay, I tell myself. He will be the nice person soon,” Dugard recounts in A Stolen Life.

The specter of a menacing stranger seizing a child like Dugard—or snatching fifth grader Jeanine Nicarico from her Chicago-area home in 1983—haunts many parents.

Fortunately, experts say, such brazen acts are rare.

National Crime Information Center data shows 401,218 entries of missing children under age 18 in 2018. Of those, nearly 9,500 cases (or 2.4 percent) went missing “under circumstances indicating they may be in physical danger,” the FBI reports.

“With children, the assailant in all kinds of crimes, including abductions is more likely to be a family member or an acquaintance” rather than a psychopathic stranger, University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor tells A&E Real Crime.

What causes adults to kidnap children? The perpetrators range from serial rapists to parents trying to protect their sons and daughters.

Desperate Parents

The trigger to an abduction “can be as simple as a custody battle,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

The U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 studied family abductions involving 203,900 children and found the majority–53 percent–involved biological fathers taking their children. Biological mothers kidnapped their children in 25 percent of the cases. When marriages sour, the parent without custody may seek revenge on his or her ex, says Greif, co-author of When Parents Kidnap, by taking their child and going into hiding for a while.

Or a parent may be worried that a spouse or spouse’s partner is abusive.

Watch: When two girls become close friends, classmates can’t help but notice how similar they look. A DNA test reveals that the girls are actually long lost sisters.

“Say you’re marrying a man and I don’t like him,” Greif says. “Our daughter comes to me and says ‘that man comes into my bedroom at night and I don’t want him to.'” If legal recourse offers no protection, he adds, “at what point, does a parent decide to break the law?”

‘You’ll Never See Him Again.’

In 70 percent of family abductions, children were returned in a month or less, the DOJ reports. But in 6 percent of all cases, the child was found but not returned; and in 3 percent the child was never located.

Among those children still missing is Timmothy Pitzen, a 6 year old from Aurora, Illinois, whose mother Amy Fry-Pitzen signed her son out of school May 11, 2011, citing a family emergency.

Mother and son went on a mini-vacation, visiting the zoo and a water park. On May 14, 2011, a maid found Fry-Pitzen dead in a motel room in Rockford, Illinois. Timmothy had vanished—and his mother had left a disquieting note.

“Tim is somewhere safe with people who love him and will take care of him. You will never find him,” she wrote.

Fry-Pitzen had suffered from depression and may have feared losing custody of Timmothy as her relationship with her husband deteriorated, friends and family said.

The little boy’s blood was found in Fry-Pitzen’s car, but relatives haven’t given up hope.

Aurora police say the case “remains an active missing-persons investigation. “Anyone with information on Timmothy’s whereabouts or details about his disappearance is asked to call the Aurora Police Department Investigations Division at (630) 256-5500,” spokesman Paris Lewbel tells A&E Real Crime.

When a Stranger Kidnaps

Mental illness factors into 9 percent of “stereotypical abductions,” where children are taken by a slight acquaintance or a stranger, according to a U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report, which Finkelhor co-authored.

Sometimes an abduction can result from acute emotional distress. For Gloria Williams, who masqueraded as a nurse at a Jacksonville, Florida, hospital and walked off with newborn Kamiyah Mobley in July 1998, the crime was an impromptu act. It occurred, Williams testified, on the heels of a miscarriage, abuse by her boyfriend and the loss of her two sons in a custody fight.

Listen: In this episode of “I Survived…The Podcast” Maggie is just 15 years old when an attacker snatches her off the street during her early morning run. When police close in on him, the attacker gets desperate, and Maggie clings to life.

Williams renamed the baby Alexis Manigo and raised her as her own, while biological mother Shanara Mobley marked her lost daughter’s birthday each year with tears.

Tips to the Jacksonville sheriff’s office led to the eventual arrest of Williams in 2017. Manigo has defended the woman she thought was her mother. “She took care of everything I ever needed,” Manigo said.

Research on stereotypical kidnappings shows that 75 percent of perpetrators were male; just 16 percent had full or part-time jobs; 54 percent had alcohol or drug problems; and 64 percent “were described as having average or higher intelligence.”

Three of five victims of stereotypical child kidnappings in 2011 were sexually abused, assaulted or exploited, the  OJJD report states.

“The main motive for stranger kidnapping is sexual assault,” says Finkelhor, who also serves as the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “Kids who are abducted by strangers tend to be not really young children, but children who may be sought after as a sex object.”

Driven by an ‘Impulse’

Psychosis and happenstance put serial killer Brian Dugan in Jeanine Nicarico’s path in February 1983.

The bubbly 10-year-old had the flu, and her parents kept her home for the day while they worked.

Dugan, out on parole for arson and burglary, was looking for an easy burglary when he cruised by the Nicaricos’ house in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. He realized Jeanine was alone and kicked the door in. Dragging the girl to his car, he later assaulted and beat her to death with a tire iron on a hiking trail.

“I was driven by some kind of an impulse that kept growing,” Dugan said in an interview. “I could not stop.” Two men were wrongfully convicted of the murder before Dugan confessed and was sentenced in 2009.

Dugard was walking to her school bus stop in June 1991 when Garrido, a convicted kidnapper out on parole, used a stun gun to subdue her. With help from his wife, Nancy, he kept her concealed for 18 years in a shed behind his house. Garrido, a drug addict, raped Dugard repeatedly, and she gave birth to two children he fathered.

When tips led investigators to Garrido, she likened the experience to “breaking an evil spell.”

Dugard lives at an undisclosed location with her daughters but has written two books about her experience and created the JAYC Foundation to help families in crisis recover.

“I know I am not the only child to be hurt by a crazy adult,” she writes. “My goal is to inspire people to speak out when they see that something is not quite right around them.”

What Every Parent Should Know

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, more than 1,600 attempted nonfamily abductions occurred in 2018. Incidents happen most frequently when a child is on their way to or from school. Students are at the greatest risk before school starts and after, and between 6 and 7 p.m.

But children face an even more prevalent danger: sexual abuse by adults. The National Center for Victims of Crime finds that one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.

That’s why experts urge parents to go beyond conventional warnings like “don’t talk to strangers.” Guidelines for age-appropriate conversations can be found at

“If you want to protect your kids from sexual abuse,” Finkelhor says, “you need to talk to them about touching rules and explain—if someone wants to touch you in certain parts of your body—that’s wrong.”

Related Features:

What’s Jaycee Dugard’s Life Like Today, 10 Years After She Was Found Alive?

Kamiyah Mobley’s Abductor Raised Her as a Daughter for 18 Years

How Were Amber Alerts Created? The Amber Hagerman Cold Case

How ‘Live PD,’ AMBER Alerts and Social Media Have Helped Find Missing Children

Live PD’s Angeline Hartmann on Jayme Closs and Misconceptions About Missing Children Cases

Related Content

How can we improve this experience?