The reality of abductions

Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat
04 Oct 2022 01:17pm
Illustrative image (123rf)
Illustrative image (123rf)

The Forensic Science Programme Research Group, Universiti Sains Malaysia studied cases of missing children several years ago.

The research was initiated by of the RMP Selangor Contingent to delve into issues related to child abduction and missing children.

A large number of these children were later found or returned to their families on their own.

Unfortunately, there is a small percentage that has not been found. However, social media portrayals of missing children have created a public misconception that attempted abductions and actual abductions are very common.

This misunderstanding is further fuelled by journalistic creativity and irresponsible individuals who create or falsify information.

Media coverage, and parents' and guardians' fears; about missing children seem to portray children as targets for abduction for nefarious purposes, such as rape, ransom, or organ harvesting.

The reality is, based on police reports of missing children, this crime is less common when compared to other types of crimes against children (eg abuse, exploitation, neglect, violence).

There is a higher possibility that children go missing due to 1) family fights, 2) communication issues between family members, or 3) a personal desire to leave the family; not as a victim of abduction, a victim of the organ harvesting, or a victim of rape-murder.

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Our research findings provide a clearer picture of why children go missing.

The determination that a child is missing or abducted depends on the facts in the report including 1) the testimony of witnesses who saw the child carried away or taken away, 2) the personality and characteristics of the abducted individual, 3) the location of the missing individual, and 4) the time abduction occurs or the time the child was noticed missing.

Three main sites were identified from police reports. These are 1) residences, 2) schools, and 3) foster care / welfare institutions.

In comparison, child disappearances from other locations, such as shopping malls, tuition centres, and playgrounds are less common.

Usually in shopping malls, children go missing due to parental negligence and the child’s disappearance is actually due to separation from parents, not abduction. Only a handful of abductions occur in shopping malls.

Nonetheless, parents and guardians should still be aware of their surroundings.

Research data shows that the environment in and around an institution (for example: home, welfare institution, school) which is less safe, increases the probability of crimes against children occurring, especially if the child is a girl.

Another implication is that the home can be the location of threats to the child's safety and well-being - in the form of negative or strained relationships between family members, the way the child is raised, the personalities of all family members, and the extrinsic environment; that prompts the child to run away.

Children in the '13 to 15 years' age group are the most likely (nearly 86%) to be reported missing. Possible reasons for this are 1) their exposure to deviant or pro-crime peer groups, 2) portrayal of independent lifestyles in the media, 3) willingness to be independent, and 4) desire to break away from family abuse, influence, or control. Children over the age of 15 may also leave home voluntarily without telling their guardians to find work and live on their own.

The younger age group tends to remain under the control and care of older family members.

There is a possibility that children under the age of 12 are actually abducted instead of having run away from home.

For example, the case where a three-year-old child was reported missing from home while sleeping in the living room of the house. The other family members were also at home at the time, but the front door was left open.

It should be mentioned here that some parents or guardians do not report missing children because they believe that their children will return on their own.

There are some parents or guardians who do not want the children to return to them and therefore, do not report the disappearance to the police.

Another reason is that adult family members may feel ashamed, angry, or guilty; because their children voluntarily decide to leave home because the home environment forces them to do so.

Motives for abduction:

Although there are not many prison inmates who can be interviewed to investigate the crime of abduction in depth, it is not as depicted in television and movies. Referring to the diagram below, the motives for kidnapping include 1) money or property, 2) not for money or property, and 3) various motives for abduction.

Diagram by Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat
Diagram by Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat

The above diagram shows that the crime of abduction can be complex. If the abduction is motivated by money or property, among other things, the crime is done for 1) ransom or debt collateral, or 2) commodity.

In the case of ransom or debt collateral, there are four possibilities: the abducted victim is returned unharmed, returned with injuries, left somewhere else, or not returned at all.

In the case of commodity, among others, the victim is sold, given to others, killed, or becomes a victim of a criminal syndicate.

Abduction Myths:

One of the factors that cloud the reality of the abductions is myths related to it. A myth is a belief or idea that is widely held by members of society to be true but it is actually wrong. Among the myths commonly associated with abductions include:

1) The use of a white van to abduct the victim

Reality: The colour choice of vans sold is limited to a few colours and white is a popular colour. This means there are more white vans on the road than other coloured vans, and therefore the probability of a white coloured van being used in an abduction is higher; rather than white being the colour of choice. Moreover, the choice of vehicles that can be used by kidnappers is not limited to vans. People need to be vigilant about their surroundings instead of only looking out for white coloured vans.

2) The abductor is a man with a strong/big body or looks violent

Reality: Gender, shape and physical appearance do not define a person as an abductor, especially in the case of child abduction.

3) Abducted victims are also victims of human trafficking

Reality: Most human trafficking syndicates use psychological tactics to get victims, such as trickery, persuasion, false promises, threats, and manipulation. Although there are incidents of abducted victims who are later trafficked, comparatively, the percentage of cases is low compared to the use of psychological tactics.

4) Using candy/ game/ gift as lures to get the target's cooperation

Reality: Baits like these are rarely successful for older children. What is more common is to take the prey away without the need for lures. The longer the interaction between the abductor and the target, the higher the probability that the abduction will fail.

5) Children become the target of organ harvesting / market syndicates.

Reality: there are specific criteria before an organ can be transplanted from one person to another.

Specific criteria include: there is a demand for specific organs, the ‘donor’ is of optimum health, compatibility of the organ with the potential recipient, and the transfer is made within the stipulated short transfer window.

In addition, medical breakthroughs and innovations are increasingly making it possible for people to live healthier and longer lives.

Advice to parents/guardians:

1) Be alert to the environment and immediate surroundings.

2) Get to know the child's friends (either the same age or older).

3) Do not arbitrarily leave the responsibility of taking care of the child to another party.

4) Always educate children to be alert and what to do if faced with abductors.

5) Ensure a friendly and safe relationship between children and parents/guardians/teachers where children are comfortable sharing problems.

6) The need for a parenting style that builds positive attitudes in children and not a parenting style that can lead to damage, destruction, or enable other parties to take advantage of children - for example, permissive, neglectful, or apathetic parenting.

7) Ensure that the environment of the school/welfare institution/home is safe such as limiting access of outsiders/ unknown people (some houses leave the door/gate of the house open. This makes it easier for people to commit crimes as opportunities were unknowingly created by victims).

Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat is a psychologist and criminologist under the Forensic Science Programme, School of Health Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia Health Campus. She is also a columnist with Sinar Daily.