Knowledge is Power: The Present and Future of Data Collection on Missing Children

By: Cassandra Doran


Over the past two weeks, an increasing amount of media focus is on the many missing girls of color from Washington, D.C.[1]  Mayor Muriel Bowser asserted that the number of missing has not increased.The coverage has caused many in the public and lawmakers to take notice and call for action to find the missing girls and reduce the number that go missing.[4]

Delegate Eleanor H. Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting representative in Congress, will be introducing legislation that would require the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (“OJJDP”) to “collect, break down, and publish demographic subsets of these missing children” including the children’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.[5]  This new legislation would be an expansion of what information is currently required to be reported regarding missing children.[6] There are many relevant questions regarding the implications of this new legislation and whether it will have the desired effects.  It is helpful to look at what is already being done and whether it is working.

Current Data Collection on Missing Children

In 2013, Congress passed legislation amending 42 U.S.C. § 5773(c) to require OJJDP to perform National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Children (“NISMART”) every three years rather than just periodically.[7]  The current incidence study, NISMART-3, is the only study since the amended requirement.[8]  It is currently being conducted.[9]  The last completed incidence study, NISMART-2, looks at data collected from 1997-99.[10]  Since the completion of that study, Congress has consistently relied on it to address the need for more information about missing children.[11] The number of missing persons’ reports have consistently gone down from a peak of over 980 thousand in 1997 to under 650 thousand in 2016.[12]

In addition to the NISMART, data on missing persons is examined more frequently by other means.  The FBI has published data on missing persons in its National Crime Information Center (NCIC) through 2016.[13]  This data is reported by the law enforcement agencies that receive missing persons reports.[14]  Whereas data from NISMART is focused specifically on children and is more comprehensive in its sources: law enforcement, parents, and recovered children.[15]  Both the NCIC and NISMART data help guide governmental and organizational responses to missing children, but the shortcomings of both also limit the potential responses.[16]

Proposed Legislation on Demographics of Missing Children

Norton’s intention with the proposed legislation is to generate data that experts can then call on to recognize patterns, such as a “disproportionate number of missing . . . girls of color,” and make recommendations.[17]  The extra data that the proposed legislation would generate may help identify specific trends along lines more specific than those available with current data collection on missing children.[18]  The NISMART currently breaks down data by race or gender, but not by both simultaneously.[19]  Therefore, there is currently little reliable data about whether girls of color or other vulnerable groups of children have a higher likelihood of being missing.[20]


Although there is no way to guarantee that more data means fewer missing children, the only way to identify and effectively address these potential problems is to get an accurate reflection of the situation.[21] More data regarding trends could allow lawmakers and organizations to target and attack root causes that contribute to certain groups of children in specific areas going missing.[22]  Until then, social media remains the greatest force for exposure for these missing girls. The more people that see these girls’ faces, the more likely they are to be recognized and returned home safely.[23]

[1] Perry Stein & Joe Heim, D.C. Mayor Bowser creates a task force on missing children after a public outcry, Wash. Post, March, 24, 2017,

[2] Courtland Milloy, Girls go missing and a community struggles to make sense of it all, Wash. Post, March, 28, 2017, (quoting Mayor Bowser’s statement regarding the increase in attention on the missing girls, not an increase in the number); Bowser Administration Announces Six New Initiatives to Address Missing Young People in Washington, DC, March 24, 2017, (explaining MPD’s new use of social media to publicize missing persons who are “critical”).

[3] Id.

[4] Stein, supra note 1 (describing the public response and the request by the Congressional Black Caucus to the FBI to assist in the investigation).

[5] Norton to Introduce Legislation to Collect and Publish National Demographic Data on Missing Children, March 24, 2017,

[6] Id.

[7] Id; 42 U.S.C. § 5773(c)(2015); E. CLAY SHAW JR. MISSING CHILDRENS ASSISTANCE REAUTHORIZATION ACT OF 2013, 113 P.L. 38, 127 Stat. 527 (2013) (changing the requirement that the national study be conducted periodically to every three years).

[8] Norton, supra note 4.

[9] Id.

[10] Andrea J. Sedlak et al., OJJDP, National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 2 (2002)

[11] Bringing Missing Children Home Act, Pub.L. 114-22, Title I, § 116(a), May 29, 2015, 129 Stat. 244 (amending 42 U.S.C.A. § 5780 to require law enforcement to gather and provide more information about children reported missing, including recent photographs of the children).

[12] FBI, 2016 NCIC Missing Person and Unidentified Person Statistics, 6-7 (January 10, 2017),

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 2.

[15] Sedlak, supra note 8.

[16] Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports, CRS Report No. RL34050, Missing and Exploited Children: Background, Policies, and Issues (April 29, 2015) (utilizing information on missing children from both the NCIC and NISMART).

[17] Norton, supra note 4.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id (explaining the limits of the data collected by NISMART).

[21] Id.

[22] Sedlak, supra note 8, at 10 (concluding “[p]olicymakers who are attempting to address the broader problem of missing children need information about the relative frequency of the different types of episodes in order to develop effective strategies for reducing the problem and design appropriately scaled interventions”).

[23] Laura Jarrett et al., Missing black girls in DC spark outrage, prompt calls for federal help, CNN, March 26, 2017, (quoting Robert Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who said, “”The more the public becomes aware of this issue of missing children, the more lives that can be protected and potentially even saved.”).