Free Range Parenting
I recently watched a YouTube video with two educated people talking about how children today do not roam freely like they used to in the 80s and 90s. The hosts (both Gen-Xers) waxed nostalgic about the good ole days when kids got on their bikes and rode about the town all afternoon, their parents giving them no restrictions save “be home by the time it gets dark.” Both hosts discussed at length the positive benefits of such unsupervised “free range” childhood activities and expressed regret that children today seldom have these kinds of experiences.
Then one of them said something that really caught my attention—he said, “I’d like for my kids to be able to do that, but I’m too afraid of sex trafficking.” In other words, though he understood the wholesomeness of letting kids go out and have unsupervised adventures, he was too afraid to let his own children do so because he was concerned they would be kidnapped and sold into sex slavery.
I found this response incredibly tragic, as all data on the subject suggests that children today are safer than ever. In this article, I am going to review some statistics about crime, trafficking, and children in the United States in the hope of demonstrating that this fear is overblown—in fact, constituting what I would call hysteria.
How Many Children Are Missing?
Every year, the number of children who go missing in the United States is wildly misreported. It is common to see numbers ranging from 300,000 to 600,000 missing every year, if not higher. The implication is that there is a massive crisis of child kidnappings and human sex trafficking exploding all around us.
It should be evident that these numbers are impossibly huge; if 600,000 children went missing every single year, then we would have a cumulative loss of around 6,000,000 children over the past decade. Since the U.S. contains an estimated 73 million children, 8% of all children would be missing—or, to put it another way, 8 out of every 100 children in your community would be missing. Clearly, this is not the case.
The misinformation here is substantial because these numbers are repeated by organizations advocating for missing children, who are well-intentioned but often mistaken. A common source for this misinformation is the National Crime Information Center’s (NCIC) annual statistics on missing persons, which the FBI reports yearly. These reports are frequently cited in alarmist articles about missing children without correctly parsing the data.
If we look at the report for 2022, we see that 543,018 persons were reported missing in 2022. But if we were to stop there, we’d have an incomplete picture. Let’s sort this data and see what we can make of this:
- The number 546,568 missing in 2022 is all missing person cases, not only children. The report says minors account for 31% of the cases, around 30,522. So, 69% of all missing persons reported in 2022 were adults, not children.
- The number 546,568 is the number of missing persons reported to the police. That does not mean 546,568 were kidnapped. This number includes, for example, people with dementia who wandered away, parents in a custody dispute where one parent keeps a child beyond the custody arrangement and has the police called, people who die at home and get reported missing when they don’t show up someplace or answer their phones, people who go missing after a natural disaster, and all other manner of situations where someone gets reported missing that are not kidnapping. The report says that 95% were categorized as “runaways.”
- Of the 546,568 records entered into the database in 2022, 543,088 were closed. Reasons for closing cases are police located the subject, the individual returned home, or the record was purged because it was considered invalid (i.e., a missing person report was filed for someone who wasn’t missing or should not have been filed). If we do the math here, this means that 99.3% of missing person cases in 2022 were resolved.
- Actual kidnapping cases were less than 1% of cases, around 2,386. Of these 2,386 cases, however, 86% are abductions by a non-custodial parent, i.e., a parent who does not have custodial rights takes or retains a child outside their custody arrangement and gets the police called.
- Only 1/10 of 1% is what we consider traditional “kidnapping” cases where a child is abducted by a stranger. The NCIC says that only 296 children were abducted by a stranger.
The chances of your child being kidnapped are incredibly slight; the chances of your child being kidnapped by a stranger while riding their bike or playing at the park are astronomically low—about 0.000004% or about 1 in 2.5 million.
Does this mean parents and children should not be aware of stranger danger? Of course not. But it does mean we should have a realistic assessment of the real threat from strangers. All data suggests it is incredibly low.
The Danger of Sex Trafficking is Overexaggerated
News about sex trafficking over the last few years has given the impression of a rising problem that has become a massive societal crisis. This has been aided by internet theories about massive sex trafficking rings involving movie stars, politicians, and business leaders.
A 2021 study by political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders found that most people overestimate the scope of child sex trafficking. The study found that over 50% of Americans believed that the amount of children sex trafficked in the U.S. is 300,000 annually or higher. The 300,000 estimate is a number that has been tossed around since the 1990s, but it is widely discredited. The true number of children trafficked in the U.S. is unknown, but recent studies suggest it is much smaller, around 27,000 (source), and even this may be skewed upward. Federal trafficking task force data reported that 2,800 people were verified victims of trafficking in the United States between 2008-2010 (source), reflecting cases sufficiently substantiated to be brought to court.
The hysteria over child sex trafficking brings another moral panic from the previous generation, the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. The Satanic Panic was characterized by paranoia about Satanic ritual abuse by Satanic cults, leading to the sense that Satanists were everywhere. Over 12,000 (unsubstantiated) claims of Satanic abuse were made; theories about a global Satanic conspiracy were prevalent. These claims were eventually debunked as psychologists, law enforcement, and investigative journalists failed to turn up any evidence substantiating the allegations. Today, the Satanic Panic is widely regarded as a social hysteria.
Sex trafficking is not even the most prevalent form of human trafficking. Research tells us the most prevalent form of human trafficking by far is labor trafficking, which accounts for over 2/3 of human trafficking. The most common type of labor trafficking is bonded labor, where victims become bonded when their labor is demanded to repay a loan or service in which its terms and conditions have not been defined. This is common in immigrant communities, where a migrant comes to work seasonally but then has their passport and identification confiscated by their employer until they fulfill a certain work quota.
Sex trafficking is a repugnant, terrible crime; even one victim is too many. That being said, we have to reasonably assess what is going on out there. But the view that sex trafficking is contantly happening right in your own community (or at the nearest shopping mall parking lot) is grossly exaggerated. The risk of children being kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking is low. And—as in the case of kidnapping—most crimes of child sex trafficking are perpetrated by someone the child knows, not a random stranger.
Above, I contrasted the sex trafficking hysteria with the Satanic Panic. One way the current panic differs from that of the 80s is the role of social media in fueling public fears.
Have you seen social media posts warning about the latest method human traffickers use to capture victims? Or perhaps you have seen warnings that the local police are “getting reports” that a white van is perusing the area trying to pick up kids? Or that a city near you is a recognized “hot spot” for human trafficking?
These sorts of posts are ubiquitous across social media and serve to fuel the paranoia that human trafficking is going on all around. Usually, such rumors are unfounded, often including reports that purport to come from the local police department. In a well-known story from 2019, the Mayor of Baltimore said his office was being inundated with calls from citizens concerned about a white van allegedly being seen in the area. Social media posts repeated the story, saying that the Baltimore PD had received numerous reports of a suspicious white van. The police department, however, said they had not received any reports and could not verify that anybody had spotted any such van. Meanwhile, regular people who happen to drive white vans have been subject to harassment from the public due to the perception of white vans as the icon of human sex trafficking.
Sometimes, posts go viral on TikTok based on nothing but heightened anxiety. One woman shopping in a Target store in Nebraska was unsettled because she noticed another woman with a child looking at her. “Something seemed off” about them, she said, and was alarmed that they appeared to follow her around the Target. She recalled seeing viral videos about how sex traffickers will allegedly use women and children to lure their victims and how Target stores have become a “trafficking hub”. The woman had security escort her out of the store; she made a TikTok video about the experience that was subsequently shared 7 million times (you can read the story here).
Is someone justified in removing themselves from a situation in which they feel uncomfortable? Absolutely! Was there any hard evidence human traffickers were scoping out this woman? No, other than the feeling that “something seemed off.” Social media filled in the gaps in this person’s head, and the story’s virality nevertheless reinforced exaggerated fears about human trafficking.
The bottom line is that, as with anything else, you can’t trust everything you see on social media. Posts about alleged human trafficking incidents, police reports, gossip about local “trafficking hubs,” etc., are sometimes misinformation. If you’re ever in doubt, contact your local law enforcement and ask if there is any veracity to what you see online.
We Are Safer Than We’ve Ever Been
The truth is, we are safer than we have ever been. Crime has steadily decreased since 2000 (source). Compared to the 1980s, American children today are vastly more secure. There are various reasons for this—most notably, increased surveillance, tracking, and swifter response systems—making it increasingly difficult to get away with crimes like kidnapping.
If you are waxing nostalgic about the “good ole days” of the 1980s and 90s when you spent hours outside on your bikes unsupervised with your friends, riding around the town doing whatever kids do when left to their own devices, it is safer for your children to be doing that today than it was when you did it. The anxiety of the age has more Americans feeling unsafe than ever before; but our anxieties do not correspond to reality, at least as far as the data is concerned.
Obviously, kidnapping does happen. Sex trafficking happens. We need to be aware of it, and we need to combat it where it exists. But this entails having accurate information, as well as not inflating the threat beyond what is justified by the numbers. Every family will have their own threshold of comfort when it comes to safety, but there are probably a few of us who could stand to raise that threshold a bit.
Do you have tips to share or questions to ask? I invite you to join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community and start a conversation.