Stranger Abduction

What is stranger child abduction?

Child abduction is the unauthorised removal or retention of a minor from a parent or anyone with legal responsibility for the child [link to definition above]. PACT defines stranger child abduction as that perpetrated by someone not known to, or recognised by, the victim¹.

How many children are abducted by a stranger?

PACT’s analysis of 2011/12 crime data suggested that approximately 200 attempted abductions by a stranger were recorded by the police in the UK¹. In addition, in roughly 50 cases a stranger succeeded in taking a child; some of these abductions result in sexual assault. Given the substantial increase in the overall number of child abductions recorded by police since 2011/12 [link to definitions page] it is possible that that the number of stranger abductions may also have increased. Other abductions by a stranger may be excluded from police figures when these have resulted in rapes or murders and are categorised accordingly.

The police picture of child abduction is incomplete. Surveys suggest [link to Briefing paper in Publications page] that roughly 1 in every 100 children experiences a stranger trying to lure them away in order to do them harm². PACT’s research shows that two-thirds of such cases involve a perpetrator in a car. Nearly half of attempted abductions by a stranger involve physical contact. Whilst most children suffer no injury, many are grabbed, dragged or held¹. Roughly 1 in every 600 children will, at some point in their childhood be made to go with a stranger. Some will be forced to touch, or be touched by, the perpetrator³.

Three-quarters of stranger child abductions are perpetrated against girls. Victims of attempted stranger abduction have an average age of 11 years. Victims of completed abduction (with a clear sexual motive) have an average age of 14 years¹.

stranger child abduction

Beyond ‘Stranger Danger’

Stranger Danger initiatives came to prominence with the release of a series of government-sponsored information films during the 1970s and 1980s. These films were aired on national television, and were often used as teaching tools in schools. The core message was that children should not talk to, go with or take things from strangers.

PACT’s research paper ‘Beyond Stranger Danger’ [insert link to report in Publications page]⁴ reviewed UK and US literature on the effectiveness of anti-abduction teaching. The findings highlight the importance of safety classes. Children who are given no safety training will readily go with strangers.

However, the study also shows that traditional Stranger Danger teaching throws up its own problems:

  • Children of all ages struggle to distinguish a stranger from a non-stranger. Some child safety materials even feel it necessary to emphasise that being ‘nice-looking’ or ‘kind-sounding’ does not mean that someone is not a stranger.
  • Resisting lures requires children to overcome socialisation processes that reward being helpful and obedient to adults. Distinguishing strangers from non-strangers may interfere with this higher priority safety task.
  • It can be difficult to be consistent in the application of Stranger Danger ‘rules’, for example parents may encourage children to talk to the ‘little old lady’ at the bus stop.
  • Teaching children that strangers may be dangerous may distract them (and their parents) from the greater risk posed by people known to them.
  • Teaching children to be wary of strangers can inhibit them from seeking help if they are lost or in distress.

stranger illustration

@Robert Bidder/Blueprint Theatre Company, Angels Fighting Devils exhibition, 2015. Statements verbatim  from two 10 year-old children asked what their idea of Stranger Danger was.

PACT is developing a new campaign to help teachers, police and parents talk to children about the risk of abduction. The campaign is called Safe, Not Scared, and is based on the following principles:

  • Recognising danger (e.g. different lures) is better than recognising strangers.
  • Teaching do’s (“yell, run and tell”) is as important as teaching don’ts (don’t go with, don’t get into a car etc.).
  • Practice is more effective than lecture.
  • Giving children confidence keeps them safe; making them frightened does not.

For more details, see here.


¹ Newiss, G. and Traynor, M. (2013) Taken: A study of child abduction in the UK. London: Parents and Abducted Children Together and Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

² Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C., Howat, N. and Collishaw, S. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC.

³ Gallagher, B., Bradford, M. and Pease, K. (2008) ‘Attempted and completed incidents of stranger-perpetrated child sexual abuse and abduction.’ Child Abuse and Neglect. 32: 517-528.

⁴ Newiss, G. (2014) Beyond Stranger Danger: teaching children about staying safe from stranger child abduction. London: Parents and Abducted Children Together. [link to Publications page]


Need help?

If you have been the victim of a crime:
Contact the Police on 999, or if it is not an emergency, call 101

If you have information about a crime or someone you’re concerned about:
Call Crimestoppers – anonymously – free on 0800 555 111


If you are a child and you are worried about an issue:
Call Childline free on 0800 1111


For information on parental child abduction see: