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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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May 15th, 2013
11:47 AM ET

Missing children myths, and the real steps parents should take to protect kids

Three women in Cleveland found after being held captive for nearly a decade brought hope to families still looking for their missing children.

But parents lucky enough to have their children at their side might be surprised to hear how many myths are out there on how to protect kids.

David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center, wrote of five myths about missing children for The Washington Post. He joined CNN's "The Lead" to talk about those myths and how to keep kids safe.

Myth 1: Most missing children have been abducted by strangers

"Of the hundreds of thousands of children who are reported missing to the police every year, less than 100th of 1% are abducted by strangers in the long-term, kind of serious episode most parents are concerned about," said Finkelhor.

Most missing children disappear as a result of running away, being abducted by another parent, or because they are lost, injured, or having a communications mishap, said Finkelhor.

Myth 2: More and more children are going missing

Finkelhor said while there is no good, annual data, many indicators suggest the number of missing children is actually decreasing.

"There's been about a 30% decline in missing persons in general since 1997. The rate of homicide and sexual assault of children has been declining," said Finkelhor.

"It's my opinion that the stranger abductions have been declining as well," said Finkelhor.

Myth 3: The Internet has made kidnapping easier

Many parents fear what a world of instant communication means for the safety of their children. But the Internet does not necessarily equate to a more dangerous world.

Crime statistics have been going down over the years, and we are still struggling to figure out exactly all the things the internet is changing, said Finkelhor.

"My sense is that young people are doing more of their independence striving and risk-taking at home using the Internet. And while that can bring them into contact with unsavory people, it does mean that some time and thinking has to elapse before the actual crime occurs," said Finkelhor.

"Frequently it gets discovered by the parent or the youth has some reconsideration of what they're going to be doing. So it hasn't had just the simple effect of making the situation more dangerous for kids," said Finkelhor.

Indeed, the increasing use of cell phones among kids, Finkelhor wrote last week, has actually helped prevent a number of missing children in terms of people being lost or abducted, allowing kids to summon help and get out of threatening situations.

Myth 4: Prevention lies in teaching children to avoid strangers

Many parents think teaching kids to avoid strangers is the best way to prevent abductions, but Finkelhor said that the focus should be on teaching kids to identify bad behavior.

"Both abductions and all kinds of crimes, sexual assaults and physical assaults, are much more likely to happen at the hands of people that they know," said Finkelhor.

Telling kids to not talk to strangers is very difficult for them to understand, said Finkelhor, because everybody is a stranger before you get to know them, it is really about context.

"You'd be much better warning kids about how to avoid people who are behaving badly, who are intoxicated, or being overly personal, or touching them in ways that make them feel uncomfortable," said Finkelhor.

"This is the kind of thing we should be talking to kids about," he said.

Myth 5: The main goal should be to reunite children with their families

The majority of children who go missing do so because of a family conflict, protracted custody dispute, because a teenager and parents are not getting along, or because the young person is being abused, said Finkelhor.

"Simply return a child to that environment, the problem continues," said Finkelhor.

"While locating and recovering the child is important, it's just as important, if not more, to provide some kind of help to that family to deal with the conflict, so that the situation doesn't continue, and that the motivation for the child to disappear or leave is resolved," said Finkelhor.

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