Free-Range Kids

Police Thought Dad Leaving the Mall With His Daughter Was a Kidnapper

"Society is all too ready to interpret the most innocent of gestures as a prelude to abusing a child."


Rafael Ben Ari / Dreamstime

The city of Brighton, England, went into a panic last week when a witness told police about a possible child abduction at the shopping center, and closed-circuit TV footage showed a man squatting down to talk to a little girl in a pink coat.

As The Daily Mirror explains:

Police had scrambled helicopters, searched cars leaving Churchill Square shopping centre and carried out door-to-door enquiries after someone contacted them saying they thought they had [witnessed] a 'kidnapping'.

CCTV images of a man leading a child by the hand in the street was later on released by Sussex Police.

However some seven hours after the alert was first raised, at around 12.30am, Sussex Police revealed that the girl was in fact with her father—and she is safe and sound, asleep, at home.

A man contacted them shortly before midnight as a result of news and social media coverage to say that the image released by police of man and child was of him and his three-year-old daughter.

He told them she had been reluctant to go home at the time.

Officers have been to their address and confirmed the information.

Some may say it's better to be safe than sorry. But witnessing an extremely normal occurence—an adult accompanying a child—and leaping to an extraordinarily unlikely conclusion is not being safe. It's being hysterical. It's wondering, gee, what's going on there? and then jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

I was alerted to this story by Frank Furedi, author of How Fear Works, who writes in his book (which came out before this incident):

A majority of people asked to give their interpretation of a photo of a man cuddling a child responded by stating that this was the picture of a paedolphile instead of that of a loving father.

Can we agree that something is wrong when we leap to the worst possible conclusion upon seeing something that is actually nice?

"Some fathers told me that they think and look around before they kiss their kids in public," Furedi told me in an email. "Society is all too ready to interpret the most innocent of gestures as a prelude to abusing a child."

If you see an adult with a child in plain daylight, it is not irresponsible to assume they are a caregiver. Remember the stat from David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who has never encountered a single case of a child kidnapped from his parents in public and sold into sex slaver. We are wired to think the movie Taken is unfolding before our eyes, when we're actually watching a more boring film called regular life.