Examining Missing, Abducted & Exploited Child Policy Problems Through the Crime Control Theater Lens
Child protection is an essential societal responsibility shared by individuals, families, communities, and nations. Part of this responsibility is to ensure that public policies, programs, and laws designed to protect children are based on sound principles and evidence-informed practice.
Crime control theater (CCT) is a concept described by DeVault, Miller, and Griffin (2016) as reactionary, sometimes ineffective, and potentially harmful policies that only appear to address crime. DeVault et al. (2016) stated, “Four key criteria of CCT include reactionary response to moral panic, unquestioned acceptance and promotion, appeal to mythic narratives, and empirical failure” (p. 1). CCT, as it relates to missing, abducted, and exploited children, is significant because child protection policy should be informed by evidence, not emotion, promotion, and myths (DeVault, Miller, & Griffin, 2016).
In Deborah Stone’s 2012 book, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making, she defined policy problems within the framework of symbols, numbers, causes, interests, and decisions. This research blog post examines the roles of symbols, numbers, causes, interests, and decisions – through the lens of CCT – as they relate to the issue of missing, abducted, and exploited children.
Symbols play a large role in defining problems in the missing, abducted, and exploited children arena. Children are the very symbol of innocence. Governmental, non-governmental, and child-serving organizations use images of children at play (jumping rope, swinging on a swing, holding hands, holding a balloon) as metaphors for innocence and our wish for children’s lives to be carefree and safe.
Organizations working to prevent children from being abducted or going missing use images of puzzles with missing pieces and children as shadows to symbolize familial loss. Similarly, exploited children are represented by pictures of children in chains or curled in a fetal position with a tear streaming down their cheek. A teddy bear is also highly symbolic of a child’s innocence and need for comfort, care, and protection.
The symbols above may invoke “powerful poetry” and “suspend our critical thinking” (Stone, 2012, p. 170). Stone (2012) said, “The emotional impact of symbolic devices can make it harder for audiences to recognize and question the underlying factual assumptions” (p. 177). When critical thinking is suspended, reactionary responses and moral panic may take its place (DeVault et al., 2016).
Some child protection laws are named after child victims in symbolic attempts to memorialize the child’s life and punish offenders. For instance, Megan’s Law was named after seven-year-old Megan Kanka, who was sexually assaulted and murdered in the U.S. in 1994. As the result of Megan’s death, state and federal laws were passed that created sex offender residency restrictions and registries. However, symbols and symbolic attempts at memorialization are problematic for missing, abducted, and exploited children issues. Symbols can pull on the caring public’s heartstrings, detracting the public’s attention from the facts.
Campbell and Newheiser (2019) stated that despite the broad appeal of laws named for Megan Kanka, “over two decades of research strongly support the conclusion that they have failed to reduce sex crimes” and that the “most notable effects of these laws have been to burden law enforcement with unnecessary labor and capital costs” and “increase unemployment, homelessness, and social stigma among sex offenders, inhibiting successful reentry into the population” (p. 3-4). Laws and policies that are mostly symbolic meet all four criteria of CCT and are examples of Stone’s problem framework – symbols.
Measuring, counting, and categorizing crime are critical functions in criminal justice systems. “Stats” tell whether crime is up or down and can be used to measure an agency’s, unit’s, or individual’s productivity and effectiveness. Numbers are “strategically selected and presented” (Stone, 2012, p. 204) and sometimes purposefully manipulated. The problem with manipulating numbers and clothing numbers “in words and symbols and carried in narrative stories” (Stone, 2012, p. 204) is that the stories may not be a full representation of the issue.
While misleading is sometimes intentional, it can also be due to a lack of understanding. In child protection policy, there are two terms: parental abduction and family abduction. The terms are very similar by definition. Both represent child abductions by parents, family members, or someone acting on behalf of a parent or family member. Because the terms represent child abductions in which the abductors can be a larger group than just parents, some organizations that advocate solely against a parent abducting their child use the larger number to their advantage. That is, they exaggerate their category of interest (Stone, 2012) to make it appear like a larger problem. Larger numbers representing larger problems – whether accurate or not – are used in narrative stories to raise awareness and funding.
In other cases, organizations may purposefully select only those statistics that fit their narrative without fully understanding estimates, statistical significance, standard error, and confidence intervals. The Third National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-3) estimated 230,600 children were victims of family abduction in 2013 (Sedlak, Finkelhor, & Brick, 2017). However, looking closer, this point estimate was based on a survey of only 18 families. NISMART-3 authors indicated in a footnote, “Estimate is based on fewer than 20 sample cases and is less reliable” (Sedlak et al., 2017, p. 9). Regardless of the cautionary footnote, the 230,600 number is widely reported.
Organizations that advocate for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation may co-opt estimates of human trafficking (a much larger number that includes adults and labor trafficking) to make the domestic minor sex trafficking problem seem even more severe (Stone, 2012). Measuring an issue leads to beliefs that something needs to be done about it, applies pressure on those responsible for preventing it, and incentivizes manipulation and exaggeration (Stone, 2012).
The practice of creating a moral panic around an issue – CCT – as described by Griffin and Miller (2008) can be a “deliberate tool for political mobilization” (Stone, 2012, p. 194). Domestic minor sex trafficking, child abductions, and missing children are all problematic issues that need rational, practical solutions. Sensationalizing issues by distorting the numbers yields reactionary, socially constructed solutions (Griffin & Miller, 2008) that may be ineffective and harmful. Think Megan’s Law, Scared Straight, and Stranger Danger.
Stone (2012) lists four types of causal theories in her problem framework, one of which - Inadvertent Cause - relates to the consequences of guided yet unintentional actions. Inadvertent causes include “unanticipated harmful effects of policy” (Stone, 2012, p. 208). Disturbing, heart-wrenching, high-profile crimes against children can result in the creation of well-intentioned laws and policies that provide the “public with a feeling of safety and security” (Yelderman, Miller, Forsythe, & Sicafuse, 2018, p. 3). However, policies should be evaluated empirically to determine their efficacy. CCT-type policies “appear to be effective, serve the public’s best interests, and provide a crime control purpose, but are largely ineffective and have unintended negative consequences” (Yelderman et al., 2018, p. 3).
According to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the stereotypical abduction of a child by a stranger is a rare occurrence. In 2019, the vice-president of NCMEC’s Missing Children’s Division was quoted as saying, “Thirty years ago, 110 children nationwide were abducted by a stranger annually. That number nationwide now is estimated at 20 to 30 children annually” (Bennscoter, 2019). Despite the rare occurrences even 30 years ago, the myth that all strangers were dangerous led to the moral panic that resulted in the Stranger Danger campaign. The problem inadvertently caused by Stranger Danger was that children were taught to be fearful of strangers, yet “most children are abducted by someone they know” (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2019). Stranger Danger is an example of a CCT policy that is ineffective and causes inadvertent harm.
According to Stone (2012), “Interest groups leaders try to attract members and supporters by raising public awareness about issues” (p. 229). The way interest group leaders and governmental and non-governmental organizations raise awareness and funding for their issues is through symbols and numbers. Symbols and numbers mobilize supporters and focus their energies on issues deemed important by leaders. Interest group leaders “define an interest by portraying an issue, showing how it affects people, and persuading them that the portrait is accurate” (Stone, 2012, p. 231).
The way the problem of missing, abducted, and exploited children is portrayed by symbols and numbers designed to create a moral panic is essential to garnering public and private interest. Symbols and numbers are used to represent the issue in ways that “emphasizes bads, losses, and costs” (Stone, 2012, p. 238). Even though these are not monetary losses, the concept is similar. The fear created can “defeat the logic” (Stone, 2012, p. 238) of rational thinking and decision-making.
Decision-making is problematic when regarding missing, abducted, and exploited children issues. Because the issues are portrayed in ways that stir emotions and stoke fear and panic, rational thinking and non-reactionary policymaking can be hampered. Child abduction homicide is a parent’s worst nightmare. Understandably, the process of rational decision-making for crimes against children may be sidestepped in favor of more reactionary yet less effective decisions. CCT-type policy decisions appear, according to Griffin and Miller (2008), as “a public response or set of responses to crime which generate the appearance, but not the fact, of crime control” (p. 160).
This blog post examined the roles of symbols, numbers, causes, interests, and decisions – through the lens of Crime Control Theater – as they relate to missing, abducted, and exploited children issues. Child protection is one of society’s most significant responsibilities. It should be based on sound principles and practices, not CCT. CCT policies are useful tools for mobilization, garnering interest, and emotional decisions. However, CCT policies are reactionary, socially constructed solutions (Griffin & Miller, 2008) that may be ineffective and cause inadvertent harm. Child exploitation, child abduction, and missing children are issues that require evidence-informed solutions.
Writer: Stacey Pearson
Stacey Pearson is a retired law enforcement professional with extensive experience in complex missing, abducted, and exploited children investigations. She is a Doctoral Candidate at Northeastern University in Boston, researching family abduction AMBER Alert child murders.