Trying To Keep Horrible Crimes In Perspective

by Lenore Skenazy

Stunned joy is what most of us felt when we learned that Charlotte Sena, the 9-year-old abducted while riding her bike in upstate New York, has been found and returned to her family — alive.

The alleged perp has been seized, bringing the number of active Amber Alerts in the entire USA to… one: Keshawn Williams, a 15-year-old from Cleveland, not seen since June. One is one too many, obviously. But it is a far cry from the hundreds of thousands that the media mentioned in the coverage of Charlotte’s disappearance.

The Washington Post reported that “(a)bout 460,000 children in the United States are reported missing each year, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.”

The reporter added that “most are found and returned to safety.” But that phrasing made it seem to me, at least, as if “most” had been taken by someone, because “returned to safety” sounds as if the cops or someone else found the child and returned them to their parents. (And by the way, “most” seems to imply that at least a sizable chunk never made it home.)

But in fact, the number of stranger abductions every year in America is somewhere between 52 and 306 a year. Those are sad numbers. But they are more than 100 times lower than the numbers mentioned in the Post.

Yes, the 460,000 number comes from the Office of Juvenile Justice. But so does the estimate of the 52-306 stranger abductions. It would calm most parents at least a little if they didn’t worry that nearly HALF A MILLION KIDS are abducted — even if later “found and returned to safety” — EVERY YEAR.

In a country with nearly 50 million kids of elementary school age, half a million abductions would mean a couple children per elementary school were snatched each year. By the time your kid graduated fifth grade at a medium-sized school, they’d have seen about 20 kids abducted. Almost an entire classroom full!

Thankfully, that is nowhere near the case.

Clearly, we can’t say that there is no crime in America, or that no children are ever abducted. Only that this crime is so rare that we are all thanking heavens for the one single child our whole country focused on and prayed for over two very troubling days.

If you are looking for more stats — are you? Do stats ever move the fear needle? — here are a few: I just went to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website. Scroll down and you can see a graph of the number of children abducted by strangers in 2022 whose cases remained open: three. Another 98 were “resolved.” These numbers are dwarfed by the number of runaways — over 20,000 — and the family abductions (kids taken in custodial disputes of divorced parents): about 1,500.

Yes, abduction IS “every parent’s nightmare.” But for the sake of our own sanity — and our kids’ mental health — we must try hard not to let it dictate every parenting decision. Because avoiding any risk often creates a risk of its own.

To wit: Parents who fear kidnapping may drive their kids to school. But far more children die in car accidents than abductions. It hurts to point this out, but it’s also true that ever more children are falling into anxiety and despair and even harming themselves. And part of that despair can be traced to having so little independence to play, explore or, yes, even ride their bikes.

It’s impossible to keep kids perfectly safe. Laws, practices and parenting decisions often try to achieve this goal. But if there’s any way to keep the sad and then miraculous story of Charlotte Sena from making us question every freedom we give our kids, we owe it to them to try.

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