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25 May 2012

Keeping Kidnapping in Perspective

With the renewed attention to the Etan Patz disappearance, I feel compelled to pull in the reins on some of the reporting and rhetoric that surrounds child abductions. Take this story I caught last night on the CBS Evening News, where we heard that
Before Patz went missing, most parents thought their children were safe in the neighborhood--and most police couldn't be bothered to quickly search for a lost child.

Patz--among the first missing child pictured on a milk carton--was the country's wake-up call.
The reality is that "most parents" were right. Those parents would continue to be right, if there are actually any rational parents left out there after decades of news reporting like this. My youth was in many ways defined by these kinds of irrational fears. Parents were scared of razorblades in apples at Halloween. (There is no recorded instance of this ever happening.) Parents were scared of child molesters, especially gay men. (Offenders are overwhelmingly more likely to be relatives of the children and to be self-identified heterosexuals.) People just knew that there were Satanic cults in their neighborhoods, doing human sacrifice and other unspeakable horrors. (There were only a handful of these incidents.) We got worried about school shootings. (Schools, it turns out, are about the safest place for kids to be.) We started fretting over terror alerts. (We still haven't had a domestic act of terrorism* since September 11, 2001.) What sociology has done a really good job at is pointing out how our fears are often disconnected from the things that actually do endanger us. (For a good treatment of this, see Glassner's The Culture of Fear.)

Let's take a look at the figures related to those fears of stranger kidnappings in the 2010 data on missing children from the National Crime Information Center:
  • In 2010, there were 322,598 missing persons
  • 96.9 % were coded as Runaway
  • 3.7% were coded as Non-runaways
  • 2.2% were coded as Adult
  • 0.8 % were coded as being Abducted by Non-Custodial Parent
  • 0.1% were coded as being Abducted by Stranger (367)
Our fears of our children being abducted by strangers is entirely disproportionate to its incidence. It would be better for us to worry about kids running away (usually from abusive homes) or about Dad (who lost custody in the divorce) taking Junior without permission.

Just because the fear is irrational, though, doesn't mean that it is random; it points to an underlying value. Our culture insists on the specialness of childhood. We fear what kids can do to us, and we fear what can be done to them. We've created this unique part of the lifecourse, and now, we must make sense of it. Playing up unfounded fears over stranger abduction is a ritualistic way to collectively reaffirm our belief: kids are different.

What gets lost in the perpetuation of these irrational fears is that, by many measures, we live in the best time and place to live ever. We are safer now and will live longer than at any time in human history. Not only that, but when we teach our children to fear their neighbors as those who might do them harm, we do irreparable social harm to our communities. Functional social interaction takes trust, not fear.

* - Of course, this depends on one's definition of terrorism. Does religiously motivated murder count?

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