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.