Do you feel like your children are living in a far more dangerous time than you grew up in? In a world full of screaming headlines, that’s understandable. It sometimes feels no child is safe.
So — what are the actual statistics? Below we’ll get to the graphs, and what is happening with today’s crime rate. But first, let us address the top parental fear: Child kidnapping.
Kidnapping numbers are a little hard to come by. The Justice Department seems to issue a report only about once every 15 years. The most recent was in 2016. As Let Grow President Lenore Skenazy wrote in The Wall Street Journal at the time:
In the past two decades stranger-danger child murders have dropped enormously, according to a new Justice Department report. In 1997 there were 115 “stereotypical” kidnappings of children under age 17—“stereotypical” roughly translating to “like the ones you see on ‘Law & Order.’ ” These are kidnappings at the hands of a stranger or slight acquaintance.
Last week the department released a bulletin with figures for 2011. Roughly the same number of kidnappings, 105, occurred, but only 8% ended in murder. In 1997, by contrast, 40% did. Today, children kidnapped by a stranger have a 92% chance of making it home.
Any crime against any child is heart-wrenching. Obviously! But the fact that almost all the minors kidnapped now make it home alive is good news about a terrible situation. And contrary to common perception, said David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center: While “the poster kids for stranger-danger have often been very young,” the most common age of victims is 12 to 17.
Lastly, to give us a little more perspective, Warwick Cairns, author of “How to Live Dangerously,” crunched the numbers and determined this:
If for some strange reason you WANTED your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to keep them outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen?
This surprises almost everyone — and helps to put our fears into perspective.
So now, let’s move on to what’s happening with crime in general in America.
The Current U.S. Crime Rate
In truth, there is bad news: The U.S. murder rate has been going up these past two crazy years.
So how can there be any good news? Well, there sort of is:
The murder rate today is actually lower today than it was in the ’90s — even with the crime increase of the COVID era.
Murder has declined substantially in the U.S. since the early 1990s, although increases occurred in 2005 and 2006, and again in 2015 and 2016. In 2021, the homicide rate for the cities studied was about half what it was for those cities 29 years ago (15 deaths per 100,000 residents in those cities versus 28 per 100,000 in 1993).
Even With the 2020-2021 Increase, Today’s Murder Rate is Lower Than in the ’70s, ’80s & ’90sThe New York Times reports that the murder rate rose 30% in 2020 and kept going up — though more slowly — in 2021.
Yet the rate is still lower than when many of today’s parents were kids, as this graph of FBI stats shows:
And the same goes for the entire category of violent crime: The recent increase is undeniable — but so is the decrease compared to the violent crime rates of the ’90s. This graph comes from CNN:
Here are some slightly older graphs that may provide some perspective — namely, that when crime has gone down for a while and then goes back up, that’s disturbing. But we are not back to the bad old days of a generation ago.
More Facts About Crime, Kids and Stranger-Danger
Table of Contents
Get the Facts: Crimes Against Children
Viral Facebook posts would have you believe that human traffickers are lurking in every Walmart, predators stalk every playground, and schools are dangerous places to be. Take a look at some of the actual crime statistics involving children.
Human traffickers are not randomly abducting children.
The Polaris Project’s research indicates that human traffickers do not abduct victims (children or adults) randomly. Traffickers build relationships with vulnerable targets over time. (Polaris, 2018 Statistics From the National Human Trafficking Hotline)
Viral Facebook posts on sex trafficking abductions pop up regularly, but not a single one of them has been proven true. From Snopes.com:
- Coon Rapids Walmart Trafficking Warning: UNPROVEN
- Narrow Brush with Human Traffickers at a Southern California IKEA?: UNPROVEN
- Target ‘Talking to Strangers’ Facebook Warning: UNPROVEN
Schools are much safer than we think.
Statistically, schools are actually among the safest places for children to be. It may feel as if shootings — at least before COVID — were far more common now than yesteryear. In fact, that is not the case.
This graph is from the National Center for Education Statistics:
Here are some highlights from the federal report Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018.
Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, a total of 18 (1.2%) of the 1,478 homicides of school-age youth (ages 5–18) occurred at school.
Between 2001 and 2017, the overall percentage of students ages 12–18 who reported being victimized at school during the previous 6 months decreased from 6 to 2 percent. (Victimization is another way of saying someone has been the victim of a crime.)
The percentage of students who reported gang presence at their schools dropped by more than half between 2001 and 2017.
Sex offense registries aren’t making kids safer.
Experts often advise parents to monitor sex offense registries to look for dangers in their neighborhood. But those lists aren’t actually very effective at protecting kids or reducing crime. One reason is that 93% of sexual abuse of children is committed by someone the child already knows — not a stranger. (Sexual Assault of Young Children As Reported to Law Enforcement, Bureau of Justice Statistics)
Additionally, only about 5% of sex crimes are committed by someone already on a registry. That means 95% of those crimes wouldn’t have been prevented by a registry anyway. (Does a Watched Pot Boil? A Time-Series Analysis of New York State’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Law)
While many parents believe that anyone on the sex offender registry is dangerous, the recidivism rate of registrants is actually very low. One study found that after eight years on the registry, only 4% of offenders had new sex crime convictions. (Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sex Offender Registration and Notification Policies for Reducing Sexual Violence against Women, NCJRS)
The Truth About Stranger Danger and Child Abduction
Many parents worry about kidnapping, but the odds of a stranger randomly abducting a child are extremely small. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, non-family abductions are the rarest type of case and make up much less than 1% of the missing children cases reported to NCMEC.
A report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicates that about 100 children are abducted by strangers each year. In 2019, stranger abductions made up about .3% of missing children cases. The vast majority of missing children are runaways.
What’s more, the FBI National Crime Information Center reported a 40% drop in the number of missing children cases between 1997 and 2014. Possible reasons for this range from more police to more cell phones and cameras:
Child abusers of all types usually target children they already know. RAINN notes that only 7% of sexual abuse cases involve a stranger.
Stop teaching Stranger Danger.
“Stranger Danger” is an outdated concept, and sometimes even prevents kids from asking for help when they need it. By teaching kids that everyone they don’t know is dangerous, we make it impossible for them to know who they should trust. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children no longer recommends teaching “Stranger Danger.”
There are a variety of terrific and reliable resources to help parents understand crime statistics and how they relate to kids. Here are some to consider.
- Childstats.gov: Forum on Family and Child Statistics
- Sex Offender Registries: Are They Keeping Kids Safe? (Psychology Today)
- Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire
- FBI: Crimes Against Children/Online Predators
- World Health Organization: Violence Against Children