The last few weeks have seen a number of news stories involving the alleged abduction and murder of children.
It’s a painful topic that naturally creates anxiety for parents. But what are the hard facts?
How many children are killed every year?
A straightforward question, but a difficult one to answer. The Home Office, the Office of National Statistics, Ofsted, the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation all have different methodologies and provide wildly different numbers.
Home Office homicide statistics are probably the most solid source of figures, and the way they are collected hasn’t changed since the 1970s, making long-term comparisons possible.
Over the last 30 years, an average of 73 under-16s have been killed each year in England and Wales.
The numbers vary from 46 to 102 but there is no significantly significant pattern. It’s impossible to say that things are getting better or worse.
In 2010/11, there were 56 homicide victims under 16 years of age, and 51 in the previous year. Those figures include murder, manslaughter and infanticide.
Compared to other age groups, children were a relatively low-risk group, as you would hope.
Babies under the age of one are were a greater risk than older children, and those aged between five and fourteen were less likely to be a victim of homicide than any other age group.
Various groups have suggested that Home Office figures do not tell the whole story, and certainly there must be more deaths that are unreported or do not lead to a trial.
Ofsted figures are generally higher, but include deaths where “abuse or neglect is known or suspected to be a factor”.
Instances of suicide, accidental death from substance misuse and cases where the dead child’s parents are known to have had a history of domestic violence are all included. So this is a broad category that goes far beyond homicide.
The NSPCC says its “long-held view” is that Home Office homicide stats are an underestimate.
Who kills children?
There is a consistent pattern when you look at the breakdown of who is responsible for these deaths. On average, over the last decade, about three quarters of the killers were known to the victim.
In nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of cases the killer was a parent or step-parent. In just over 12 per cent of cases, the culprit was definitely a stranger.
Killings in 2010/11 followed this pattern: 77 per cent of victims aged under 16 knew the prime suspect and 64 per cent were killed by a parent or step-parent.
It’s less easy to make historical comparisons in cases of child abduction thanks to changes in the way the crime has been defined and recorded over the years.
Police specialists at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) looked at police data 2002 to 2010 and found evidence of a sharp rise in cases from 2001/02 to 2004/05, followed by a significant decline in recent years.
But these figures lump together both successful abductions and attempts that failed, which causes problems.
The apparent sharp rise in reports of attempted abductions by strangers after 2002 could be because police adopted a new system based on the victim’s perception of crime, rather than a strictly evidence-based approach.
So an incident was more likely to be recorded as an attempt to snatch a child even in the absence of hard evidence, if that’s what a parent thought had happened.
A snapshot analysis of cases in 2002/03 found that out of 846 successful and attempted abductions recorded across all police forces in England and Wales, 47 per cent of cases were recorded as attempted child abductions by strangers.
But “in most offences there was minimal contact between the victim and the offender” and there were doubts about how serious some of these incidents really were.
Actual abductions by strangers accounted for 9 per cent of all offences, a total of 68 victims.
Of these, there was a “clear sexual motive” in 12 cases, and two children became the victims of a serious sexual assault.
Again, a parent was more likely to be the culprit. Some 23 per cent of abductions were parental, but “in some cases the child was not taken outside the UK and it seems that in some of these cases either the offence should not have been recorded or should have been recorded as ‘no-crime’ at a later stage”.
We don’t know if any of this is typical because the analysis was not repeated.
What kind of person does this?
Another obvious question, but an area where this is a dearth of research.
Very few people know more about the psychology of child snatchers than Graham Hill, a former senior detective and head of behaviour analysis at CEOP.
Now an academic, Mr Hill has for the last five years had the unenviable but important task of interviewing convicted child killers in Britain and the US in an effort to better understand what makes them tick.
Strangers who abduct children are difficult to spot in a crowd and hard to profile, he told FactCheck. Most of the tabloid cliches about “monsters” are untrue.
Most abductors do not plan their crimes meticulously but act on the spur of the moment, he said, adding: “It doesn’t matter how good a parent you are. It’s the child being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
While abductors may well have deep-seated sexual motives, they may well not have a record of sex offending, and may be unknown to police.
Most of the men – and they almost always are men – are attracted to adolescents rather than young children, according to Mr Hill. They often have “normal” jobs and family lives and rarely confess to their crimes when interviewed by detectives.
He said: “The $64,000 question is: who is most likely to go out and do this? That’s almost impossible to say. Each abductor is fairly unique.”
It’s probably a good idea to be even more cautious than usual when trying to interpret the statistics available on this subject.
Long-term statistics for some of the huge numbers of different sexual offences against under-16s on the statute book are available but it’s probably impossible to draw meaningful comparisons over long periods of time because of changes in the way the police record crimes.
What we can say is that there is no evidence that the most serious crimes against children are on the increase. There’s no statistical reason for parents to be more worried now than in previous years.
And in absolute terms, cases of abduction, homicide and serious sexual assault remain, mercifully, very rare.
Graham Hill told us that abduction “is a rare crime, but when it happens it’s a huge event, not only for the people whose lives it affects, but also for the media and the whole community”.
He added: “The reaction is completely skewed. There is a fear of strangers that is not borne out by the statistics.”
By Patrick Worrall