On an oppressively hot afternoon this August, a Florida teenager was startled to see what someone had ditched at the foot of his neighbor's driveway: a child's car seat with a 21-month-old boy still strapped inside.
It was lucky that Jamichal Young, 16, found the missing child when he did with temps already well into the 90s and the sun blazing. Jamichal videotaped the child on the driveway with his phone and quickly called 911, while his family gave the toddler some juice and a fresh diaper and posted the video on social media to help find his parents. Broward County sheriff's deputies and the child's grateful, crying foster mom arrived quickly.
What happened on Aug. 13 in a neighborhood near Ft. Lauderdale is just one recent example of a frightening trend across the country: Car thieves are stealing cars in record numbers, and a growing number are startled to realize at some point that they haven’t just stolen a car but also a child.
Babies and small children are being abducted – 119 children already this year, according to Kids and Car Safety – when they’re left alone in the backseats of vehicles while their parents hop out for just a minute to pump gas, pick up take-out food or dash back into their homes for something.
Last year, Kids and Car Safety, a nonprofit, documented an all-time high of 265 children abducted during car thefts by reviewing news stories, said Director Amber Rollins, who believes the number is just “the tip of the iceberg.” Law enforcement doesn’t keep statistics specifically on children taken during car thefts.
PSA courtesy Kids and Car Safety.
“Contrary to what many believe, this is not a rare occurrence,” said Rollins. “Carjackers know the places people feel safe leaving their cars running. These are probably loving parents who think, what could possibly go wrong? I’m just running in for a minute.”
When car thieves realize there’s a baby on board, they often panic and get rid of the child or abandon the car with the baby in it, Rollins said. Babies taken during car thefts have been found abandoned, often in car seats, in alleys, on roadways, in stores, at construction sites and in stolen cars hidden in crowded parking lots. One baby was found in a couple’s garden; another handed from a stolen car through a window at a fast food drive-thru.
The shocked foster mom in Florida told deputies she’d made a quick stop at the place where she works to use the restroom and left the child in the backseat of her Mercedes-Benz C-300 for just a minute, asking someone she knew inside to keep an eye on her car. When she headed back out, the car was gone with the child in it. The car was found abandoned but the car thief, wearing a hoodie to cover his or her face, has not been arrested.
It's hard to measure the scope of the problem, said Rollins, whose organization tracks news stories and verifies them with law enforcement. Most of these crimes happen quickly and never make the news. Law enforcement doesn’t have statistics, because there’s no one category for a child abducted in a stolen car, usually without the abductor realizing a child is there. Is it a car theft? A carjacking? An abduction? Child endangerment? Child neglect?
What we do know is that it’s a crime that puts a child, often an infant, at extreme risk and traumatizes everyone involved. While homicides of children in car thefts have happened, they’re rare. But children have been injured in high-speed chases or when they’re abandoned in hot or cold weather or dropped off in places at night where they can be hit by a car or taken by a passerby.
“Luckily, the child was found unharmed,” said Detective Nelson Mendez, who is investigating the Florida case. “Once you leave that child on the side of road, anything can happen. Thank God [Jamichal] was walking by, and he did the right thing.”
The child was found, still in his car seat, in a Broward County driveway.
Car thefts can happen in a blink of an eye and are often resolved before law enforcement can issue an AMBER Alert for a critically missing child. At NCMEC, we noticed an uptick during the pandemic of AMBER Alerts about children in stolen cares, which pointed us to a much larger problem.
During the pandemic, people working from home were juggling children and jobs and ordering more take out. At the same time, car thefts were at record numbers not seen in a decade. But now, with the pandemic officially over, the number of car thefts has continued to soar, as has the number of kids taken in car thefts. Police say car thieves are getting younger. A dangerous challenge on TikTok has prompted kids across the country, many not even old enough to drive, to steal certain models of Hyundais and Kias by smashing car windows and using a USB cord.
As a parent herself, Rollins understands that parents make calculations every day. Should I unbuckle and remove my child from the car seat or just make a quick dash for gas or takeout or coffee? It will just take a minute. For the most part, they’re not bad parents, Rollins said, just uninformed of the dangers.
“We’re not out to blame parents,” said Rollins, whose organization offers tips for parents. “We’re out to protect children.”
To read more about the problem, go to NCMEC’s website at https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2021/theyre-stealing-more-cars-with-kids-left-in-them.