To stop child abductors, we need a better understanding of who they are

Probably not lurking in your local forest these days. Shutterstock

Society tends to see men that abduct and sexually abuse children as evil, but given we feel so strongly about what they do, we know surprisingly little about them. These crimes are rare and the extreme public hatred for perpetrators means that few are willing to talk frankly about what they have done and why they did it. That means that there isn’t much evidence to go on when it comes to understanding why these crimes happen.

Every so often, a child is abducted and sexually abused by a man they don’t know. Sometimes that child is murdered and the offence becomes known as a mega-homicide. These crimes strike fear into the heart of every parent, particularly during the considerable media coverage that generally follows.

But after the initial media interest and intense debate, the case will slip away from the public conscious and the topic falls into obscurity until the next high-profile abduction. This yo-yo effect means that the public remains largely unaware of the deeper issues involved in this type of crime and the risks posed to their children.

Changing profile

Historically the men who abduct children have been depicted as socially isolated, sexually inadequate deviants who are unable to forge age-appropriate relationships with their peers and who exist on the fringes of society.

This stereotype owes much to the way perpetrators were portrayed in “stranger danger” campaigns run in the 1970s and 1980s. They were, to some extent, borne out by research undertaken in the early 1990s. But the stereotype predates the rapid development of communication technology. In fact a child abductor now is just as likely as the next man to have an outgoing personality and play an active part in their community.

Today, two types of non-familial child abductor present a threat to children. The first are those who use traditional methods to entice or snatch a child from a public place and the second are those who use social networks to identify and manipulate a child prior to abducting or attempting to abduct them.

While these two methods may appear very different, the methods used by both types of offender is in fact remarkably similar. They consider the same things when assessing the vulnerability of their victim and use similar methods to control them.

In this sense it appears that there are more similarities between the two types of child abductor than perhaps one would expect. This suggests that existing profiles of child abductors in the UK may be one-dimensional. They encourage a stereotype that may now be somewhat dated and misleading to potential prevention and detection strategies, rather than usefully informing them.

Perhaps it’s time for profiles to reflect the fact that while two abductors might take two initially different pathways in order to meet a child, their approaches often merge as the abduction unfolds.

Changing our view

In the UK, we have a justice system that has rehabilitation and redemption at its core – yet we don’t seem ready or willing to extend those values to people who commit sexual crimes against children. Demonising these people surely only undercuts our ability to understand their motives and intervene to protect children.

Contrary to public perception, non-familial child abductors are often model members of society. At the time of their offence, they are usually either married or in a steady relationship and many have children of their own. They generally have a job and many actively contribute to their communities and society as a whole. They are not awkward social misfits that lurk outside schools or parks, nor do they spend vast amounts of time grooming potential victims.

Rather than fitting the increasingly widespread stereotype, they do not hang around the dark web, networking with like-minded people or view huge numbers of indecent images of children. They live their lives in plain sight and are skilled at grooming those around them – to the point where they are often the last person anyone would suspect of harbouring a deviant sexual interest in children.

Crucially, most have no previous criminal convictions of any kind and are not known to the police or other authorities before abducting a child.

All this draws us towards an uncomfortable reality: the men that abduct and sexually abuse children are not as far removed from the non-offending male population of society as we might like them to be.

As unpalatable as this may seem, we should perhaps be reassured. If sexual offenders of this kind are not the incomprehensible monsters we once thought, we have a better chance of understanding their motives and stopping them – even if that demands a huge change in the way we deal with them.