In recent years, the common parenting fear of kidnapping has taken on a new aspect. Now parents are asking: Do human traffickers kidnap children?
Child kidnapping is a tough fear to shake. It seems to be the favorite topic of every cop drama, newscast, talk show—and an entire decade of Liam Neeson movies. Recently the fear has been massively reinforced on Facebook, where lots of moms are writing about how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery store.
Are these real kidnapping attempts? Let’s take a look.
Those Facebook stories reflect real fear, but not fact.
While at Sam's Club, one Facebook mom posted, "a man came up to us and asked if the empty cart nearby was ours.…He was an African American with a shaved head.…It seemed like an innocent encounter." But then the mom goes a few stores over to Walmart and there’s the guy again, "feverishly texting on his phone but not taking his eye off my daughter.”
And so? "I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell," the mom wrote.
And I have absolutely no doubt that she's wrong.
That’s not because I don’t trust the lady. She may have been truly freaked out. But what I trust is data, and David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, is the data guy I turn to. He’s been studying child crimes for about 40 years and analyzes the data for the Department of Justice. I asked him: Do human traffickers kidnap children? Have you heard of any case where a child was taken from a parent in public and forced into the sex trade?
No, he replied. Because that crime is not happening. Actual traffickers build relationships with the young people they go on to exploit, usually troubled or runaway teens. That is horrible in its own right. But no one is spiriting away toddlers from Target.
It's time to let go of Stranger Danger.
The mom on Facebook probably truly believed that person posed a danger to her kids. In some ways, it's hard to blame her. When she was growing up, pictures of missing kids appeared on many milk cartons. (No one ever mentioned that most were runaways or taken by non-custodial parents in a divorce case.) Along with the milk carton pictures, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children popularized the idea of "Stranger Danger" in the 1980s. These days, they're actually begging Americans to stop using the term. They're saying that the fear of strangers is scaring us, but not making kids safer.
The vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know. That means teaching kids “Stranger Danger” makes no sense. But this does: Teach your kid THE THREE Rs.
The Three Rs
RECOGNIZE: No one can touch the parts of your body your bathing suit covers.
RESIST: Make a fuss, run, scream, kick if someone bothers you. Often, the molester will leave. Like the rest of us, they prefer it when their job is easy.
REPORT: Tell your children that even if the creep makes them promise/swear not to tell anyone, that doesn’t matter. Tell your kids they can and should always tell you if something weird is happening. You won't be mad at them. This helps keep the lines of communication open and gets rid of at least some of the stigma. It also takes away the predator's greatest asset: secrecy. In fact, you might tell your kids they can keep a "good secret," like a surprise they are making for your birthday. But "bad secrets" (anything icky or disturbing) are made to be broken.
Since most molesters are not strangers, these rules make children much safer than a blanket warning to distrust anyone who isn’t a relative or friend. And since there is no way to “childproof” the whole world, think of this as “world-proofing” your child.
Long story short: Do human traffickers kidnap children? No. The real danger often comes from people they know. Rather than worrying about kidnapping, keep your kids safe by teaching them how to deal with any unwanted advances.
Good luck re-framing the fear!