The cost of fear

2016-07-15 09.34.30 (2)Last week, I started seeing a particular story being shared on social media by a number of my friends.  According to a Facebook post by a mother from Southern California, while at Ikea, she and her children were stalked by two well dressed men who appeared to have no interest in shopping.  She goes on to say that she believes these may have been human traffickers, waiting for a moment when she was distracted to snatch one or more of her children.  Luckily, she and her mother kept a close eye on the children and managed to lose the men by doubling back.  It’s a chilling story, one that plays into every parent’s worst nightmare.

I can’t say whether this particular mother’s story is true.  I wasn’t there and I don’t know her, so like any anecdote from a stranger on the internet, it’s unverifiable.  I can see why so many of my friends and family members share them on social media with posts like A good reminder of why you should always be aware when you’re out and about with your littles.

But whether this post is true or not, it has been bothering me ever since I read it.  Not because it’s made me more aware of a scary possibility, but because I think it’s actually an unhelpful reminder of something that is unlikely to happen.  And I think it’s hurting children and families.

If this were really such a common danger–if there were really traffickers around every corner waiting to snatch nice, suburban American children to sell them into fates worse than death (that’s what’s always implied in these stories, right?)–then you would think that we’d see a lot more articles about it and a lot more warnings from law enforcement officials.  Instead, we just have viral Facebook posts with plenty of conjecture.  Here’s what law enforcement has to say about a similar mother’s fear that her child was almost snatched:

“Human trafficking is a reality in Oklahoma,” said Michael Snowden with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics Human Trafficking Division.

Snowden said stories like this are based on real fears, however, the concern has no basis.

“We don’t generally see people snatching children from their parents or women being abducted from a retail store of some sort. Human trafficking is much more subtle than that,” Snowden said.

Snowden said victims are generally coerced over time, often by someone they know or someone they met online.

“These girls are recruited. They’re promised the world and love and those things that are maybe lacking in their lives,” Snowden said.

Snowden said, while post to social media like Kalidy’s are based on real incidents and real fears, the so-called suspects likely weren’t trying to kidnap anyone.

“We would never belittle someone’s fear, OK? But diversion is really a frequent tactic when I’m trying to steal your purse, get your car keys,” Snowden said.

And these scary stories play a little too closely into cultural narratives about what kind of parents the Millennials and Gen-Xers are.  We’re distracted by our smart phones and not watching our children closely enough, right?  Or, like this other viral Facebook post implies, we don’t understand that we’re putting our children at risk of being sold on the (probably fictional) international market for Caucasian children by having Facebook friends we’ve never met in real life.  These seem like they’re actually thinly disguised criticisms of parents, rather than warnings about things that are likely to actually happen.

I’m not saying that children don’t go missing or that horrible things don’t happen to children.  They can and do. In the grand scheme of things, though, there are many greater threats to children than being snatched by a stranger at Target.  For instance, I can’t tell you how many pictures of kids in clearly inadequately buckled or installed car seats I’ve seen.  Those kids are in a lot more danger of death or serious bodily injury than the kid at the park whose mom is scrolling through Instagram.

Worse than that, these posts empower busybodies who feel comfortable getting law enforcement involved any time a child isn’t watched like a hawk.  That’s how you wind up with the police being called because three children were playing in their fenced-in backyard while their mother was in the house.  Or the police being called because a six year old was playing in the field across the street from his house.  Or a mother facing five years in jail for letting her first grader walk half a mile to a park by himself.  If there are bad guys just waiting for the chance to snatch an unattended child around every corner, then calling the police in these instances is rational.  But if there isn’t, then we might be harming children.

Because the other dominant cultural narrative about “kids these days” is that us parents aren’t getting them out of the house enough.  The kids are all winding up obese because they just sit around playing video games and never get outside.  Except that if letting my kids go outside to play in a fenced in yard while I do dishes inside means that child protective services might show up at my house… well, maybe video games are the safer option, right?  That’s not even to mention the damage that we might be doing to our children by never giving them a moment without surveillance.

And as if all that isn’t enough, these sensational stories take away from the children and adults who are trafficked.  According to the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor’s 2002 report, there are an estimated 1.2 million children out there who have been trafficked, but only a tiny, tiny percentage of those children are from developed nations.  These children need advocates, and their advocates need money to combat this problem.  Has anyone ever read one of these stories of middle-class white kids in America being targeted for trafficking and thought, “I really need to donate some money to an organization that helps fight trafficking”?  If you really want to do some good–if you really want to save a child from a fate worse than death–being “aware” when you’re at the grocery store isn’t the answer; giving money to one of the many organizations fighting this problem is.

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