FILED IN: Social Issues

Steal This Child

You’ve heard the names. Samantha Runnion. Elizabeth Smart. Baby Jessica. Erica Pratt. Tamara Brooks. Jacqueline Marris. These are just some of the children reported missing in what the media has dubbed the “Summer of Abduction”. But is this moniker warranted? It depends on who you ask.

Missing children statistics are as varied and confusing as the new tax code. Even President Bush, as he plans his White House Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children, will not have a clear grasp on what the numbers really are. Mark Klaas, on his website, quotes figures indicating that missing persons reports are up 468%, declares that the current amount of missing children points to an “epidemic”, and states that “if any other segment of our population were so impacted…the center for disease control would fund a cure; we would pass and enforce legislation and we would increase private and public security”.

What he has failed to note, however, is that since beginning with the passing of the Missing Children Act in 1982, there have been changes to what even classifies a missing child, and how it is reported. As it stands now, if your child goes off to the park without your knowledge and you call the police, it is immediately entered into the state law enforcement system and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, despite the fact that she was found thirty minutes later on the jungle gym. Over at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), they quote from a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice back in 1990, and puts the yearly estimates of “each type of missing child” at: “Family Abductions – 354,100, Nonfamily Abductions – 3,200 to 4,600, Attempted Nonfamily Abductions – 114,600, Runaways – 450,700, Thrownaways – 127,100, and Lost, Injured, or Otherwise Missing – 438,200”. They point out that “the largest number of missing children are “runaways”; followed by “lost, injured, or otherwise missing children”; then “family abductions”. Also noted is that while these numbers appear extremely large, the vast majority of these cases are resolved within hours.

If the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC) is to be believed, the type of abduction parents fear most – predatory, by a stranger – is actually on the decline. 115 cases were reported in 1998, 134 in 1999, 106 in 2000, 93 in 2001, and only 46 in the first half of 2002. And in these cases, less than half of the children were murdered by their abductor. Not that these numbers should be brushed off or taken lightly. Fifty children murdered is still fifty too many. But how serious of a concern is this, and how far do we let the fear and paranoia control our lives? To put the numbers in perspective, take a look at the statistics from other tragedies that befall our children. Last year 300 children accidentally drowned, some in their own bathtub. 203 children died from injuries while riding their bicycle. 733 died of pedestrian injuries, such as simply crossing the street. And the granddaddy of them all, auto accidents, claimed the lives of over 15,000 children in 2001. The point? While your child certainly should be taught the dangers of talking to strangers, they have a 4 times as likely chance of dying from simply riding their bike, and we can probably agree that a parent that prevented their child from mounting a two-wheeler would be seen as overprotective and paranoid.

So what should be done? As always, educate and remind your children, but don’t over do it. The NCMEC and countless other internet sites offer parents tips to keep their child safe. Follow their advice to a reasonable level. Ask yourself this question: Is it good for me or my child’s state of mind to always be in fear of Stranger Danger? “Daddy, I know you are concerned, but do you have to stay within two feet of me the entire time I’m at the park? The other kids are talking…" "Why yes, Samantha, I do, because if not, you’ll be forcibly removed from the swings, only to be horribly assaulted and probably killed.” Fast forward three hours to little Sam hiding under a blanket in the fetal position not able to sleep.

Certainly what’s not being advocated here is to let your children run around willy-nilly and all caution be damned. But what we all need to accept is that life comes with risks, and to increase the quality of life one needs to deal with said risks. People don’t give up golf because of the off chance of a lightning strike. You don’t don a steel suit of armor to walk down to the grocery store (especially since by doing so, you would increase your chances of the aforementioned lightning strike). So by all means, let your kids be kids – let them play out in the front yard. Dare to take your eyes off of them for two minutes at the park to make a new friend with a fellow mom and set up a play date. Live, laugh, and love, knowing that while tragedy does beset the unfortunate few, fate also bestows upon us much more in the way of unexpected joy – if we let it.