Northwest Life: Tuesday, September 10, 2002
Seattle Times

Parent panic: It's just human nature, say psychologists


By Stephanie Dunnewind
Seattle Times staff reporter



Denice Vinson knows it's statistically unlikely a stranger will abduct her 5-year-old daughter. She doesn't care.

"They can tell me as many times as they want that it's not likely to happen," said Vinson, who won't allow her daughter to play unsupervised in the front yard of their quiet Bellevue neighborhood. "But I'm still not going to risk it. 'Why take that chance?' is what a lot of parents are thinking."

Despite the summer's many high-profile abductions and constant media attention, law-enforcement numbers don't suggest abductions are up. But parents' fears are.
Psychologists say abduction ranks at the top of parents' fears because kidnapping is so unpredictable. It's the same reason people fear flying more than driving, though mile for mile, we're 37 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash than on a commercial flight, said David Myers, author of "Intuition: Its Powers and Perils."
"We're designed to reason dramatically, not statistically," Myers said. "Dramatic outcomes capture our attention; probabilities we hardly grasp."

Many safety experts say parents should direct some of their concern toward more common, preventable injuries such as car accidents and drownings.

FBI data and a 1999 study for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquence Prevention suggest there are about 100 child abductions by strangers each year in a nation of 78.5 million children. These are the most serious cases where children are kept overnight, killed or held for ransom.

Harder to track are attempted kidnappings or short-term abductions where children are sexually assaulted.

Sue Wagner, coordinator of the Washington State Patrol Missing Children Clearinghouse, says she's been getting a lot of calls from concerned parents lately. Of the approximately 1,500 missing children here, runaways account for most (80 to 85 percent), custodial interference the remainder, she said.

But Vinson isn't having any of it. "They say the figures (of kidnapping) aren't really up," she said. "But it's in the forefront of everyone's mind. You turn on the news, and it seems like you hear a new case every night. And the gruesomeness of where they find them compounds it."


Unpredictablity, lack of control

Her feelings don't surprise psychologists.
Kidnapping tops the list of nightmares for parents of toddlers to teenagers, said Linda Dunlap, chair of the psychology department at Marist College in New York state. For parents of infants, the fear is SIDS; for parents of older teens, car accidents.

Those sudden events fulfill the two main criteria of stress: unpredictability and lack of control, said Joe Tecce, professor of psychology at Boston College. "To the extent that parents are worriers by temperament, child abduction will always be perceived as more significant than it really is."

What freaks out Angelica Stefnik of Bothell is not so much the number of children abducted but the brazenness of the attackers.
Most parents know the protective drill at an amusement park or crowded mall. But the audacity of would-be abductors who walk in through the front door (here, last month, in Everett) or snatch a baby in a parking lot while the mom is 10 feet away (last month, in Texas) makes parents despair they can keep kids safe anywhere.
Stefnik is up several times a night, checking to make sure her 4-1/2-year-old daughter is still in bed.

She knows sounds in the night are probably from the cat — "but if I don't get up and then she's not there in the morning, I'd be a horrible person," she said. "I'll lie there for 10 minutes, thinking, 'I'm sure she's fine, go back to sleep,' but I can't."
Dunlap says that sense of guilt compounds parents' fears. "Keeping our children safe is our top responsibility as parents," she said.
"Abduction immediately goes to the heart of that: 'I'm to blame, I should have done more.' "

Studies on murder and sexual assault of children uniformly show kids are much more likely to be harmed by adults they know.
Danger is closer to home
Of the 540 children to whom King County Sexual Assault Resource Center provided ongoing services, only 2 percent were assaulted by strangers, said director Mary Ellen Stone.
But that's hard for parents to acknowledge.

"It's human nature," Stone said. "We think, 'If there are people in my life, then they're good people. I don't know anyone who would do something like that, so therefore, if someone does harm me, it will be someone from the outside.' " Parents do their children a disservice to focus on "stranger danger," said Jan Wagner, author of "Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World." An updated edition is due this fall.
"The lesson all children need to have is that it's not important who someone is; what matters is what they ask children to do," Wagner said.

Parents also tend to worry more about younger children when studies suggest it's actually older kids who are more likely to be targeted. A 1997 Washington State Attorney General's Office's study of 600 cases of kidnap-murders of children found that only 9 percent of victims were age 5 or younger.
While parents should do what they can to protect children from abductions, they shouldn't ignore more likely types of harm, experts say.

Accidental injuries are the most common cause of death for children above age 6 months, killing an estimated 13,000 kids each year.
"When kids are walking to school or sports practice, parents are concerned about abductions when they should be more concerned about pedestrian injuries," said Dr. Fred Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics who also works at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. Cars kill 1,000 child pedestrians each year.
"Smart parents will want to check their intuitive fears against the facts," agreed Myers, a social psychologist at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

"To drive around with your child not seat-belted and then anxiously clutch her hand at the grocery store, lest she be snatched, makes no sense."

Technological peace of mind?

Some parents are eager for technological fixes, including bracelets with a Global Positioning System to monitor children's location (sold by several companies) and even an implantable GPS chip (in development).

The $400 bracelets, for example, allow parents to contact a call center or check a Web site for their child's location within 75 feet (for a monthly fee).

Applied Digital Solutions of Palm Beach, Fla., says its Digital Angel bracelet "helps you keep an eye on your kids when you're not there to do so. The peace of mind it offers you is priceless."
Vinson thought tracking bracelets were a "cool idea" until her husband said, "I'd hate to see what an abductor would do to a child's arm to get that off."

Stefnik said she might reluctantly consider an implant. "If it meant finding her within half an hour, or eight months later, I'd be willing to do something that extreme."

Safety experts worry these devices give parents a false sense of security. "Electronic devices should never replace education," Wagner said.

From a privacy standpoint, advocates wonder if children will become accustomed to being watched at all times. Tracking devices also put personal information on the Internet where hackers could access it, said Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

"Fear tactics are being used to justify surveillance of more and more segments of society," said Givens. "First surveillance bracelets were just for prisoners on parole confined to house arrest. Then it was OK for seniors with Alzheimer's so they couldn't wander away. Now it's OK for children because of a spate of child abductions. The next thing to do is slide into the totality of having everyone tracked because of terrorist threats."

The community approach

Dunlap urges parents to turn to their communities and get to know their neighbors. Parents can walk groups of children to school, or gather neighbors so a parent watches each block on children's routes before and after school.
"There are lots of things parents can do without preventing children from still experiencing life," she said. "Parents can't go overboard and make children so fearful that they're not willing to try anything. Some risk has to be taken, or life will be pretty dull."


Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com.