Amber alerts pop up on freeway signs and interrupt radio and television programming. We hear about Polly Klaas, Adam Walsh, and other children who were kidnapped and murdered. Now it’s Isabel Celis in Tucson, Arizona. Child advocacy groups start talking about the hundreds of thousands of children (usually they cite “every 40 seconds”) who go missing every year, the media runs with the story–often adding in something about how the number is growing–and parents around the country panic.
There is no question that every single missing child is a horrible tragedy, but the numbers and pseudo statistics that get thrown around do more harm than good.
So what are the numbers? Well, there are as many as 800,000 children reported missing every year. But most of them were runaways or were taken–usually for short periods of time–by relatives. A total of about 58,000 children are taken by non-relatives. 3,000-5,000 are taken by strangers, mostly for short periods (not overnight). Many of those children are sexually abused. Every one of those is a horror for the parents, the community, and especially the victims. But those children are not killed.
In fact, every year there are fewer than 200 kidnappings of the kind most parents fear: a stranger snatching a child from the home, holding her for ransom, intending to keep her permanently, or killing her. That’s out of 73 million children under 18 in the U.S. So the odds of a worst-case-scenario kidnapping are 1 in 365,000. To put that in perspective, according the the National Weather Service, the chances of you being hit by lightening in your lifetime is 1 in 6,250.
As parents, we want to do everything we possibly can to reasonably protect our children from anything bad happening. But by wildly exaggerating the seriousness of the risk, advocacy groups are making what is truly an unfortunate and tragic rarity into something parents and children live in mortal fear of every second of every day. Raising kids is hard enough. Having to worry constantly about things that are incredibly unlikely makes it even harder.