Child abduction attempts by strangers are scattered throughout the city. But in the 407 preliminary Chicago police reports identified by the Tribune since March 2008, the arrest rate was sharply lower in areas that had higher crime rates and more single-parent households and families on public assistance, a Tribune analysis found.
This concentration of disadvantages correlates closely with race in Chicago, and those South and West Side census tracts were predominantly African-American and Hispanic.
By contrast, the city's majority-white tracts had 12 prosecutions out of 107 cases — a rate roughly 20 times higher than that for African-Americans and more than five times higher than that for Hispanics.
Those stark disparities in arrest rates should be viewed with caution because the number of arrests is so small. But data from 50 recent police reports and in 62 successful prosecutions since 2000 also suggest that African-American children are disproportionately the victims of reported abduction attempts but underrepresented in cases that lead to convictions, the Tribune found.
The Tribune found no evidence of racial bias on the part of authorities tackling the stranger abduction attempts, although some families harbor that suspicion.
"Yes, there is a feeling out here that if I report my niece is supposed to be home at 6 and she's not home at 7, that there's going to be a different approach to handling that than if we were living in Northbrook," said 6th Ward Ald. Freddrenna Lyle. "The first response from law enforcement is that the girl ran away. That delays the immediate 'get out and look for the person.'"
Robert Hargesheimer, commander of the Police Department's youth investigations section, said emphatically that race played no role in the department's investigations. "I can tell you, we don't personally care what color or ethnic background you are at all — you get the same investigation as anybody else because it's a kid. It's a child," Hargesheimer said.
The Tribune data and interviews highlighted several factors that help account for the unequal prosecution rates in city neighborhoods.
Police resources can be stretched in precincts inundated with serious crime. Children from single-parent families are often less supervised, making them easier targets. And impoverished neighborhoods can house more felons and registered sex offenders, putting children closer to potential predators.
"There are so many people who've gone to jail and prisons for these abuses against kids, and when they get out, they're not coming back to the North Side or Gold Coast," said 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins Jr.
While rape and murder cases are often solved through DNA and other forensic evidence, the prosecution of child abduction attempts often hinges on whether a credible adult witnessed the crime and came forward to cooperate with police, case reports examined by the Tribune show.
In more affluent communities there is a "high expectation that neighbors will intervene in crime" and cooperate with authorities if a stranger is seen approaching a child in a suspicious way, said Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson.
But in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, a collapse of community trust often leaves children vulnerable to violence and predators, said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, of St. Sabina Catholic Church.
"Those who want to do harm feel greater freedom because people either turn their backs or close their eyes," Pfleger said. "Our communities are broken down."