Unsolved homicides like the much-publicized slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey are actually a daily event in the United States.
Police report they don't know who committed more than 10,700 killings of children from 1980 through 2008. Of the 51,753 murders of juveniles 17 or younger, nearly 21 percent were unsolved.
Slightly more than one unsolved homicide of a child occurred each day during this period, according to Scripps Howard News Service's first-of-its-kind analysis of crime files provided by the FBI and local police departments.
"Too many are going unsolved," said LaWanda Hawkins of San Pedro, Calif. She founded the advocacy group Justice for Murdered Children following the 1995 killing of her son Reginald.
"We've found that when much time goes by without the case being solved, the killers often go on and kill again," she said. "We have to realize the mistakes that we've made — all of us, police, parents, everybody. We have to stop the silence that surrounds this problem."
Child murders are more likely to be solved than adult homicides. About 31 percent of cases involving victims 18 or older were reported as unsolved. But crime experts see little cause for celebration.
"The real question is: Why aren't the solution rates even higher than this?" asked Charles Wellford, a criminologist at the University of Maryland and an expert in homicide clearance. "It's often very clear who did these crimes."
Infants and very young children are especially vulnerable to fatal violence from family members, whether despondent mothers suffering postpartum depression or angry stepfathers and boyfriends unhappy with the demands of unwanted parenthood. From 1980 through 2008, police reported 17,210 homicides involving infants through children in their fourth year, compared to only 3,099 killings of children 5 through 9 years old.
But crime experts warn that statistics about child homicides and how often such cases are solved are imperfect. Participation in the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Report program is entirely voluntary. Many police departments decline to report how many cases they've solved or how many cases involved juvenile victims.
Scripps Howard's analysis included detailed records of 15,322 homicides that were not reported to the FBI. These cases were obtained under local Freedom of Information Act laws from police departments in Florida and the District of Columbia. They included 1,366 deaths of children, 266 of which were not solved.
Few child killings received as much publicity as JonBenet Ramsey — a child beauty-pageant contestant found brutally slain in the basement of her parents' Boulder, Colo., home in 1996. But Ramsey's death was hardly unique, as she was one of 2,203 child killings that year. Twenty-one percent of those were unsolved.
The problem has gotten worse in recent years. Perpetrators were unidentified in 24 percent of child killings committed from 2006 through 2008.
"A lot of them are going unsolved because more and more of these homicides are being committed by strangers or slight acquaintances who break into the house," said Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children, based in Cincinnati.
Police reports confirm this. Child murders committed by strangers or by persons with unknown relationships to the dead children have been rising, as have deaths associated with juvenile gangs.
The solution rate differs dramatically between teenagers and young children. About 10 percent of killings went unsolved for infants and children up to 4 years old. But the failure rate rose to 29 percent for teenagers 15 to 17.
Police are also significantly less likely to identify killers of racial or ethnic minority children. Only 13 percent of non-Hispanic white child murders went unsolved, compared to 24 percent of black infants and youths and 27 percent of Hispanic children.
"This is not a race thing, but a class thing. It comes down to whether or not you have money," Hawkins said. "If a killing happened in Beverly Hills, I can guarantee that (police) will get to the bottom of it. But if the killing happens in South Central (Los Angeles), they won't."
Gender also matters, the study found. Twenty-two percent of the killings of male children went unsolved, compared to 17 percent of female children. Although the difference between genders is much reduced among infants and very young children, the killings of males are consistently less likely to be solved throughout all age groups.
"This country has always had more compassion for the murders of little girls," Hawkins concluded.
But nothing seems to matter more than geography. Just as with adult homicides, child killings are more likely to be solved in some cities and states than others. Worst was the state of New York, where police reported not solving 32 percent of their juvenile homicides. At the other extreme were police in South Carolina and Wyoming, who reported solving all but 5 percent about their cases.
High failure rates in homicide investigations often reflect failures of will by local political leaders to make murder cases a top priority, according to crime experts.
"The one factor that stands out is the leadership of the police department," Wellford said. "If they're committed to clearances, if they make it a priority, if they provide the resources and demand that their investigators use the best practices, we always see increases in the clearance rates in those communities."
Parents groups in recent years have developed strategies to help police locate child killers.
"We've formed our own cold-case squads. We will call detectives to talk about cases. This keeps the cases in their face," Hawkins said. "And we will go out to the neighborhoods ourselves to post signs. We'll beg people to put up rewards for information. We also help put up billboards. We have to start holding parents, law enforcement and the whole communities accountable."
Cases in West
Number of children murdered from 1980-2008 and percentage of unsolved cases.
Colorado — 696, 11.4%
Idaho — 139, 7.2%
Nevada — 394, 20.6%
Utah — 287, 9.4%
Wyoming — 79, 5.1%