Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fight the Culture of Fear: The Near-Myth of Kidnapping by Strangers

If you are a parent, about your worst nightmare is that a stranger would kidnap your child. We are much more careful about letting children play unsupervised than we used to be. We have developed the nationwide Amber Alert system to track abducted children quickly. Megan’s Law mandates that we be informed about sex offenders living near us. Many parents will know who Elizabeth Smart, Jessica Lunsford, and Shasta Groene are.

Yet few parents know that sexual assaults on children by strangers, always rare, are down nearly 40% since the early ‘90s, and sexual assaults on teenagers have dropped nearly twice as much. Most of that drop in sexual assaults on teens have come from drastic reductions in assaults by strangers. Most teen molesters are known to the kids, especially men who have access to teen girls, such as mom’s boyfriend.

Kidnapping is mostly done by relatives, especially feuding parents snatching the kids from one another. How many stranger kidnappings of children were there last year? Noted family researcher Bill Doherty answers that question using the most definitive study of abducted children, the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2002 National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children. There are an estimated 45 stereotypical stranger "kidnappings" per year of children under age 12 in the United States. Another 65 teenagers were abducted by strangers. That is less than one in a million. Kids are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be kidnapped.

The current child abduction scare works the way much of the culture of fear does: the less likely one of our Dark Fears becomes, the more publicity we give to each case of it that does occur. Paradoxically, this extra publicity makes it seem that the thing we fear is more common than it really is. The social mechanisms that we have created to fight stranger abductions – including Megan’s Laws, Amber Alerts, and, most importantly, a much greater awareness by adults and children of the danger signs of abductors – have been working. By the same token, though, the social movement that created these successful mechanisms also, necessarily, raises our concern about the problem of kidnapping. Concern leads to successful social control, but concern also leads to increased fear.

The middle way lies in keeping our concern and our fear in proportion to reality.


Tom Strong said...

The same is true, I've heard, of sexual abuse - it is far more likely that the perpetrator will be a relative or friend of the family than a stranger. This is potentially an area for the "radical middle" to assert itself, because the solution will ultimately be family-based, rather than legislation-based.

Gruntled said...

The crucial issue seems to be, Do men not related to girls have daily -- afternoonly, nightly -- access to them. This is where stepfathers, though mostly very good guys, are a greater risk than natural fathers, and boyfriends are a positive menace.

Cailean said...

The culture of fear that has swept our society has become a mjor concern of mine recently.
Happily I discovered your blog today and have begun sifting through your posts... that you are a fellow Presbyterian elder makes reading your posts that much more relevant.
I have had two experiences recently that have heightened my awareness of the culture of fear. First was a debate about the appropriateness karate programs for kids. The argument in favour suggested that karate programs prepared kids for the eventuality that they might face a violent agressor and, thanks to the karate lessons, would be able to defends themselves. My position was that the odds were extremely low that a) the encounter would actually occur and b) that the karate lessons would be sufficient defence. Meanwhile, the preparation for a potential violent encounter only serves to increase the daily fears of the child rather than the intended mitigation of those fears.
The second encounter (my apologies for verbosity!) involved a sincerely forwarded email arriving in my inbox from a friend. The email warned of strangers approaching women in WalMart parking lots offering to sell perfume and then drugging and abducting them! This email is an example of the 'new urban legend.' The ubiquity of these urban legend emails are far more damaging than their 'slumber-party' predecessors.
I look forward to reading your future thoughts on the culture of fear. And I apologize once more for the length of this comment!

Gruntled said...

Welcome, Cailean. Substance of all length is always good.

I think the ritual of martial arts training is a good way to discipline and channel kids' joy in smacking stuff. Boys, especially, need to "face the dragon." It is a ritual, though, and won't amount to serious self-defense training for most of them. And selling it as a way to face real dangers does, I agree, raise fear unnecessarily.

Anonymous said...

With that kind of decline in sexual assault, I'm made to wonder aloud about how the development of electronic chat rooms and internet relationships may have altered the statistic.

Gruntled said...

Internet sexual predators are mostly an urban legend, too. There are are a few, of course, but there is far more adultery arranged in chat rooms than pedophilia. You want to find sad examples of sex with kids? Thrownaway kids turned hookers is a much bigger statistic than strangers playing on the innocent. And the throwing away is almost always the result of a marital disaster.

Anonymous said...

While I am astounded by those numbers (only 110 abductions by strangers?!?) I’m equally astounded by how often the same parents who go off the deep end every time an Elizabeth Smart is on the news fail to see the real danger posed by people in their everyday lives. While I’m mostly talking about sexual abuse it applies to kidnapping as well. It’s not some stranger in the shadows with a trench coat and shifty eyes who’s going to hurt your kids; it’s your friendly uncle, or your mom’s boy friend. Crimes against children are successful because the criminals already have some relationship with the parent(s) that allows them to gain trust that they later exploit to hurt the kids.

How much better would society be if instead of everybody going apeshit when the bizarre occurs (a stranger abduction or sexual offense) we actually took steps to heal the “normal” everyday abuse that occurs with surprising regularity? What if we actually attempted to educate the public a little better about how and why crimes against children are committed, because the more we pigeonhole molesters and abusers as “monsters,” the tougher it becomes for us to spot them amongst our own family and acquaintances. No one thinks of anyone they know as being a monster, but they’re out there and they look as normal as you or me. In fact most sexual abusers are experts at looking and acting perfectly average, or even above average (Ted Bundy for example) that’s how they gain the trust required to do what they do.