Staff Editorial

To fight abductions, public must have accurate sense of problem

A Mollie Tibbetts missing poster is displayed in the front window of The Timepiece Theatre in Brooklyn, Iowa. (Kat Russell/The Gazette)
A Mollie Tibbetts missing poster is displayed in the front window of The Timepiece Theatre in Brooklyn, Iowa. (Kat Russell/The Gazette)

After nearly two weeks, Iowa investigators had few updates to disclose about the young Iowa woman who suddenly went missing near Brooklyn last month.

Law enforcement officials reported at a news conference this week they have had 30 to 40 investigators working on a daily basis, following up on more than 200 leads since 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts was reported missing.

Tibbetts’ disappearance has drawn international attention and helped spark interest throughout Iowa about missing people cases, but discussion has not been totally truthful.

Widely shared social media posts last week raised alarm about the number of missing people in Iowa — more than 40, mostly children, over the span of 10 days, according to a state database available online. Some posts warned children and young women are being abducted from neighborhoods or store parking lots in significant numbers.

Statistics in the posts were accurate, but don’t tell the whole story.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety issued a statement last week to clarify these figures are in line with existing averages, and do not represent an increase. Last fiscal year, 4,311 juveniles were reported to the Missing Person Information Clearinghouse, an average of 12 cases per day, mostly runaway teens who are often located within 24 hours.

Among cases nationwide where authorities listed circumstances surrounding disappearances, 96 percent were runaways in 2014, according to federal figures.

Just 332 of more than 635,000 known cases — about a tenth of one percent — were listed as abductions by strangers.

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And most kidnappings are carried out by people the victim knows, like an acquaintance or a non-custodial parent.

Law enforcement officials still are urging the public to be vigilant about community safety. That’s because they always recommend as much, not because of heightened alert related to the Tibbetts case or a supposed abduction epidemic.

“I would encourage everyone to take some standard precautions, and I would encourage everyone to do that in their normal life, not just after something like this occurs. Everyone needs to be cognizant of their surroundings,” said Kevin Winker, director of the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s investigative division.

Misguided paranoia over stranger abductions may be diverting attention away from cases where public safety officials believe community awareness could provide valuable assistance, like Tibbetts’ disappearance. Anyone with information about her disappearance is encouraged to call the dedicated tip line at 800-452-1111.

Abductions are a legitimate problem and worthy of concern, but the issue is best addressed with clear and accurate understanding of what’s actually happening.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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