Risk of Childhood Kidnapping are Very Low
A generation ago 70 percent of children played outside; today the rate is down to 30 percent.209 In 2008 the nine-year-old son of the journalist Lenore Skenazy begged her to let him go home by himself on the New York subway. She agreed, and he made it home without incident. When she wrote about the vignette in a New York Sun column, she found herself at the center of a media frenzy in which she was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom.” (Sample headline: “Mom Lets 9-Year-Old Take Subway Home Alone: Columnist Stirs Controversy with Experiment in Childhood Independence.”) In response she started a movement—Free-Range Children—and proposed National Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day, intended to get children to learn to play by themselves without constant adult supervision.
Skenazy is not, in fact, America’s worst mom. She simply did what no politician, policeman, parent, or producer ever did: she looked up the facts. The overwhelming majority of milk-carton children were not lured into vans by sex perverts, child traffickers, or ransom artists, but were teenagers who ran away from home, or children taken by a divorced parent who was embittered by an unfavorable custody ruling. The annual number of abductions by strangers has ranged from 200 to 300 in the 1990s to about 100 today, around half of whom are murdered. With 50 million children in the United States, that works out to an annual homicide rate of one in a million (0.001 per hundred thousand, to use our usual metric). That’s about a twentieth of the risk of drowning and a fortieth of the risk of a fatal car accident. The writer Warwick Cairns calculated that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.
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