An Empirical Exploration of the Geo-Spatial, Offence, and Offender Characteristics of Non-Familial Child Abduction Offences Committed in the UK

  • Matthew Jones

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


With the exception of the very limited UK research on non-familial abduction (NFA) offences, and broader child sexual assault (CSA) offences (such as child grooming), findings related to NFA offences have been based on US cases, with limited comparison of UK and US findings. Further, there is a lack of consistency across key terms associated with the offence (such as child, abduction, acquaintance and stranger) with a resulting lack of clarity as to whether US findings can inform UK cases. This lack of consistency ultimately impacts on the academic understanding of these offences. From a pragmatic standpoint, this could have negative implications for investigations where evidence-based advice may be requested. Further, given the assumed pressure of NFA investigations, research had yet to examine the experience of Senior Investigating Officers (SIOs) who have investigated these cases to identify where research could add value. Consistent with the offender profiling literature, research of investigative utility was considered to encompass geo-spatial patterns of offending, offence, and offender characteristics. Within the limited studies of UK NFA, there is a paucity of empirical research that extends beyond descriptive analysis of these characteristics to produce findings of pragmatic utility.

To address these limitations, the current thesis examined UK NFA cases using a mixed-methods design. Firstly, a systematic literature review (SLR) was conducted to identify the NFA knowledgebase. This included collation of research on both acquaintances and strangers, and the identification of consistencies between the UK and US literature. Results focussed on victim, offender, and offence characteristics. Whilst similarities between US and UK research were identified, the requirement for further study comparing stranger and acquaintance abductors, as well as fatal and non-fatal cases was evident.

Following the SLR, a qualitative study (Empirical Study 1) involving semi-structured interviews with SIOs was conducted to identify investigative barriers and potential avenues for pragmatic research. Findings identified six themes; Lack of Evidence, Media Management Issues, the Offender(s) Involvement in the Investigation, Search-related Difficulties, Organisation and Procedural Complexity, and Job-related Stressors. Whilst search-related difficulties were not the most frequently occurring theme, this finding has significant investigative implications due to its alignment with investigative lines of enquiry, evidence acquisition, victim recovery, and suspect elicitation/identification. The current thesis maintains a pragmatic focus consistent with offender profiling concepts, and considers the priority of investigating forces to recover the victim alive. The absence of thorough UK-specific geo-spatial characteristics identified in the SLR, coupled with the Search-related Difficulties theme identified in Empirical Study 1, formed the justification and rationale for Empirical Study 2.

Empirical Study 2 used an official National Crime Agency (NCA) dataset to examine the geo-spatial characteristics of fatal and non-fatal NFA cases in the UK. Descriptive statistics revealed novel findings regarding assault sites and vehicle use, which have potential implications for prioritising neighbourhood and witness canvassing areas, as well as searching automatic number plate recognition records. Most offenders also remained within the same location type (urban or rural) that they originally came into contact with the victim in. A series of Mann-Whitney U tests highlighted statistically significant differences in the distances travelled by offenders, between specific site pairs, when sites were in rural or urban locations according to; victim gender, offender age and ethnicity, victim-offender relationships, and nature of vehicle use. The frequency distributions of distances between sites supported pre-existing models of distance decay, and the median distances observed between sites suggests that offence sites are considerably closer to the offender’s residence than comparable site distances recorded in US and Canadian research.

To produce findings of further pragmatic utility, the offence and offender characteristics identified in the SLR, and the difficulties in determining lines of enquiry and information about the offender identified in Empirical Study 1, were used as the justification and rationale for Empirical Study 3. To assist investigating forces in the area of suspect elicitation, two Smallest Space Analyses (SSA) were conducted using offence and offender characteristics derived from the same NCA dataset used in Empirical Study 2. Findings revealed themes of offending including Feigned Intimacy and Violent Abuse which shared thematic similarities to themes identified in previous CSA research and modes of victim-offender interaction. Offender themes including Haphazard Lifestyle, Criminal Lifestyle, and Juvenile were also identified which theoretically supported pre-existing psychological theories discussed in Chapter 3. To determine an empirical basis for NFA offender profiles, a Chi Square test of association between offence and offender themes was conducted at a thematic, and individual variable level, however no significant association was identified.

Limitations of the empirical chapters include the subjectivity involved in qualitative research, and the non-identification of theme causality. Some of the cases interviewed for in Empirical Study 1 were also dated, and the researcher relied on the accuracy of case notes and the participants memory, as well as trusting that the Reponses received were unbiased. Key limitations of Empirical Studies 2-4 related primarily to the dataset. In Empirical Study 2 scene coordinates for further case-by-case exploration were absent, and distances from the victim’s residence to the offender’s residence and other offence sites were absent meaning no analyses could be conducted on the interaction between the victim and offenders’ geo-spatial patterns. The sample size for this study was also considerably small (N=84). For both Empirical Chapters 3 and 4, missing data (particularly for child abduction murder (CAM) cases), and offender characteristics (N=111) are likely to have impacted on SSA outputs, and the non-significant Chi Square findings. In contribution, the current findings have implications for legislation and policy, as well as for the investigation of NFA cases such as awareness of the impact of CAM cases on the SIO, the refining of search parameters, and implications for suspect elicitation.
Date of Award17 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDanny Hunt (Main Supervisor) & Daniel Boduszek (Co-Supervisor)

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