Nobody is Trying to Kidnap Your Child At the Grocery Store - A Look at Real vs Perceived Risk - Blog

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Nobody is Trying to Kidnap Your Child At the Grocery Store - A Look at Real vs Perceived Risk

Published Date: 01/09/20

Nearly every day in one of the many mom Facebook groups I’m in, someone posts a panicked tale of their outing.


A grandmother cooing over their baby at a busy grocery store is in cahoots with a man outside to kidnapped and traffic their baby. A guy at a shopping mall bumps into a mom carrying her infant, then shows up at the same restaurant - clearly a threat and 911 needs to be called. And of course, there’s the IKEA story that went viral, where a mom was certain her family was being followed around the packed store on a Saturday afternoon by human traffickers.


People. This. Is. Not. How. Human. Trafficking. Works. 

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Seriously. Can you even find the exit in IKEA?


The internet has given us some truly amazing things. I know - I’m old enough to remember adulthood before it. However, it’s also changed our way of life for the worse.


Etan Patz was the first missing child on a milk carton way back in 1979 and from there we’ve developed Amber Alerts. Don’t get me wrong - I fully support news of a missing child spreading like wildfire (notably, Black children go missing at a much higher rate than white children, though we hear about the white children significantly more, but I’ll save that for another post). However, because we’re inundated with horror stories, parents across the country have become terrified to let children out of their sight, and it’s hurting our children. 

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Over the last 50 or so years, we’ve seen a significant decline in the amount of free time and play children are permitted. Along with that, we’ve seen a significant decline in children’s independence and a significant increase in their anxiety and mental health problems.


My mom grew up in suburban Westchester, NY, where she walked a mile to and from school daily, beginning in kindergarten. I assure you, my grandmother did not make the trek with her. In the early 1980s, I walked to school alone beginning in kindergarten and my mom, who still lives in my childhood home, makes fun of the fact that parents in our 100-home, single outlet neighborhood accompany their children the one-quarter to one-half mile walk to the local elementary. These are quiet streets and there’s a crossing guard at the school, so what are parents fearing?


I’ll tell you that more than I fear something happening to my own child, I fear another nosy parent deciding to call the police or CPS if they see my daughter walking alone. Why is our first instinct to get authorities involved, rather than simply asking a child if they need help? The “it takes a village” rhetoric is vast, but let me tell you, that’s not what a village does. 

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We’ve seen it repeatedly. The Maryland parents who had the police involved several times for letting their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter walk to the park and play alone. They were cleared of neglect charges because this is in no way neglect. In fact, I might argue that sheltering your children and not fostering independence is more neglectful. The University of California at Berkeley is now giving adulting classes. That’s right. Classes on how to be an adult. I’ll be damned if I’m paying for my daughter to go to college and take adulting classes. If she needs them, I’ve failed miserably as a parent.


Meanwhile, Kim Brooks had her life turned upside down after making the decision to leave her 4-year-old son in the car for a handful of minutes on a 50-degree overcast day when she made a quick stop on the way to the airport. Some “concerned citizen” called police. I put that in quotes because someone who was truly concerned would have waited by the car to ensure the child was okay, not anonymously reported it to the police and then driven away. 

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We call parents who afford their children the freedoms children of my generation had, “free range”. For the record, I was born in 1976. We hopped on our bikes after school and rode around, our families only having a vague idea of where we were. “Around” being the vague idea. Latchkey kids were a hot topic - kids who came home to an empty house. Now parents would be skewered for permitting that, if not arrested. Many states have passed laws against leaving children home alone under certain ages, in some cases that age is 12. I don’t recall exactly at what age my parents started leaving my siblings and I home alone, but I suspect it was when I was in third grade when my mom went back to work. My sister would have been in fourth grade and my brother in first. I distinctly remember my mom sitting us down for a talk, telling us she wasn’t going to be there when we arrived home from school.  

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I’ll also add that my mom’s signature move when I was growing up was to park in the fire lane of a shopping center, leave us kids in the car, and leave the car running when she popped into a store. Nobody ever called the cops because we were fine. Also, we didn’t even wear seat belts, let alone have car seats. Admittedly, leaving the car running wasn’t a great idea, but in the safety of our middle class to upper middle class suburb, our police beat in the local paper were typically stories of smashed mailboxes and occasional graffiti. I can’t say I was never responsible for a smashed mailbox.


Anyway, having the data, it was far, far, far more dangerous for my mom to drive us around, especially unrestrained, than it was to leave us three kids in the car during a quick stop. But even with seatbelts it’s deadlier.


Our perceived risk of certain events is so much greater than the actual risk involved. Let’s consider statistics, because that’s what matter. Despite my anecdotes, I’m not a fan of the, “Well, we turned out okay,” argument. 

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According to the Polly Klaus Foundation, about 100 children are abducted by strangers annually in the United States and half of them come home. That’s a fraction of 1% of the children who go missing each year. 99.8% of missing children come home. Over 87% of children reported missing are lost, have miscommunicated their plans, or have run away. Of the remaining 13%, more than 9% have been kidnapped by a family member, 3% by a non-family member typically during the commission of another crime, such as a robbery, and the kidnapper is usually not a stranger. And that leaves us with the less than 1% who are abducted by strangers in the types of situations that parents fear daily.


I get it - it may be the worst possible thing that can happen.


But, Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids puts the number at 1 in 610,000 that your child will be abducted and murdered by a stranger.  

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In contrast, you have a 1 in 102 chance of dying in a car accident. A 1 in 119 chance of dying in an accidental fall. The risk of your child aged 1-4 drowning to death is about ten times more than the risk of being kidnapped by a stranger and about 20 times more than your child being abducted and killed. And drowning but not dying? Seventy times more than death from stranger abduction for kids 1-4. Choking is one of the leading causes of death for children under five with a child dying every five days. Ever heard of SUDC? It’s like SIDS, but for children over one year. Unbelievably awful and it happens to 1 in every 100,000 children.


Every year, 12,000 children die from unintentional injuries. That means about 0.416666666667% of those are at the hands of strangers who have kidnapped them. 

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Turning our attention to human trafficking, in response to the infamous IKEA story, Lara Powers of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. She says, “I wish I could say the post nonetheless will help make us all “better safe and vigilant” than sorry. In fact, I find that it so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.”


“I'm a professional in the anti-trafficking field, and I have encountered thousands of child sex-trafficking cases in the United States. I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother's watchful eye. It’s just not the way it works.”

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So, please. For the sake of families everywhere. Stop with the Facebook posts about how you thought some guy at the mall was shady and clearly he was there to steal your child. Stop with the grocery store stories of someone you perceive as overly interested in your baby surely being a human trafficker. You’re literally hurting children by spreading these beliefs. 

In the meantime, here’s what you can actually do to keep your child safe:

  • Use the proper car seat, ensure it’s installed correctly, and rear-facing until your child maxes out the height or weight limit on your seat. A child is literally five times safer rear-facing. Don’t switch to a booster until they’ve maxed out the height or weight on their forward-facing car seat. And always purchase your car seat from a trusted source - counterfeit car seats are on the rise.
  • Secure your furniture to the wall. Your dressers, your TVs, your bookcases. Even ones you think are short. Short furniture can still be a tip hazard. Tie up blind cords. 
  • Mitigate choking risks. Don’t give popcorn before age four. Cut hotdogs, cheese sticks, grapes, and grape tomatoes lengthwise until age five minimum. Don’t leave anything that may be a choking risk in the reach of small children, including fridge magnets. 
  • Create a safe sleep environment for babies. Don’t use crib bumpers (even the mesh ones). Nothing in the crib other than a firm mattress and fitted sheet before your baby is a year old.  
  • Fence your pool, not just your yard and never leave a child unattended near the water, even if he or she can swim. Lock your toilet and ensure you never leave buckets of water around, even for a few minutes. A child can drown in 1 inch of water. 

Lock up cleaning supplies and chemicals and teach children that they’re poisonous. 

Don’t use your phone while you’re driving. Not only does it significantly increase your risk of a crash, it teaches your child bad habits - they’ll be driving one day too. 

As parents, we all want to keep our children safe. Focus on the things that actually harm children, not almost nonexistent stranger danger. Your child will actually be better off if you loosen the leash and support their budding independence.

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