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Will new methods improve counts of missing children?

Counting America’s missing children with the Fourth National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-4)

The principal goal of the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART) is to redesign and test new data collection methodologies that result in accurate national statistics on the number and characteristics of missing children reported to law enforcement.  

NISMART responds to the 1984 Missing Children’s Assistance Act, which requires the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to conduct national incidence studies triennially to determine, “the actual number of children reported missing each year, the number of children who are victims of abduction by strangers, the number of children who are the victims of parental kidnappings, and the number of children who are recovered each year.” NISMART is funded by OJJDP and managed by the National Institute of Justice.

Westat designed and directed all 3 previous cycles of NISMART for OJJDP, in collaboration with our partner, the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

  • The first cycle, NISMART-1, defined 5 types of events or episodes that can cause a child to become missing and estimated the number of children who had episodes of each type in the study year.
  • The second cycle, NISMART-2, refined the definitions of episode children and developed 2 standardized definitions of a “missing child.”
  • The third cycle, NISMART-3, replicated the NISMART-2 classifications of episode children and missing children.

All previous NISMARTs relied on household surveys for most categories of missing children, using interviews with law enforcement only for the rarest and most serious forms of nonfamily abduction. However, with the decline of household survey response rates, that methodology became less useful for reliable estimates, so the Department of Justice decided to refocus the study to assess the incidence of missing children reported to law enforcement.

In preparation for NISMART-4, Westat and our partner, the Crimes Against Children Research Center, will

  • Collect national data from law enforcement agencies on child victims of the most serious types of stranger abductions, as before, but now using a web survey to streamline data collection
  • Pilot test a more efficient methodology for collecting data to estimate the number of child victims of family abductions and of other types of missing child events reported to law enforcement and the number of those children returned

In conducting its design work, our study team convened expert panels to discuss missing children definitional issues, survey instrument content, how agency-reporting practices may affect the recording and classification of missing children reports and, most importantly, the utility of survey items to the field.

Once completed, NISMART-4 will result in

  • Enhanced collaboration with law enforcement agencies
  • Improved ability to map NISMART data onto the practice and legal elements that are most important to law enforcement and other stakeholders
  • Improved procedures for regularizing the collection of data, including reducing cost and increasing data accuracy
  • Updates, where appropriate, to definitional and conceptual questions behind missing children issues due to changes in society, technology, and law
  • Improved precision of missing children estimates and the sensitivity of trend analyses

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