Northwest Life: Tuesday, September 10, 2002
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
Despite the summer's many high-profile abductions and constant media attention,
law-enforcement numbers don't suggest abductions are up. But parents'
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
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
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
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,
"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
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
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."