Free-Range Kids

The Moral Panic Over 'Stranger Danger'

Why are we freaking out about the safety of our kids?


South Carolina mom Debra Harrell worked at McDonald's. She couldn't afford day care for Regina, her 9-year-old daughter, so she took her to work.

But Regina was bored at McDonald's.

One day, she asked if she could just play in the neighborhood park instead. "I felt safe there," tells me in my new video, "because I was with my friends and their parents."

"She had her cellphone, a pocketbook with money in it," says Debra. "She had everything she needed."

Regina was happy. Debra was happy.

But one parent asked Regina where her mom was, and then called the police. Officers went to McDonald's and arrested Debra.

In jail, they berated her.

"You can't leave a child who is 9 years old in the park by herself!" said one officer. "What if some sex offender came by?"

People interviewed by the media were also outraged.

"What if a man came and just snatched her?" asked one.

"This day and time, you never know who's around!" said another.

But what are they talking about? Crime in America is way down, half what it was in the '90s. Reports of missing children are also down.

If kids are kidnapped or molested, it's almost always by a relative or an acquaintance, not by a stranger in a park.

Nevertheless, prosecutors charged Debra Harrell with "willful abandonment of a child," a crime that carries up to a 10-year sentence.

They also took Regina away from her mom—for two weeks. "I would cry as night because I was really scared," Regina told me. "I didn't know where I was, or what was going on."

Fortunately, attorney Robert Phillips took Debra's case for free. He didn't like the way police and media portrayed her.

"Here was this black female that society gives a hard time. 'Welfare queens, living at home, not getting a job!' Well, that's what she was doing," he said. "She was out working, trying the best she could to take care of her child. And now we're beating her up because we didn't like the way she took care of her child."

The cops said that Harrell should have sent her daughter to day care. But even if she could have afforded it, it's not clear that day care is safer. "We found 42 incidents of sexual molestations, rapes in day cares," said Phillips. "We couldn't find (in South Carolina in the last 20 years) a single abduction in a park."

Philips blames people in my business for scaring people about the wrong things. "The media has brought up this 'stranger danger' to where, if you're not under the protective wings of mom and dad 24/7, then you're exposing your child to some unknown danger."

That has frightened police and child welfare workers into taking absurd steps when parents leave children alone.

In Maryland, police accused parents of child neglect for letting their kids roam around their neighborhood.

In Kentucky, after police reported a mom who left her kids in the car while she dashed into a store, child welfare workers strip-searched the kids to make sure they weren't being abused.

This doesn't protect kids. It mostly scares parents into depriving their kids of chances to learn. "When you don't let them spread their wings, that's when they get in trouble!" says Debra.

She was fortunate that her case got enough attention that even Nikki Haley, then South Carolina's governor, asked that Regina be given back to her mom.

Prosecutors finally dropped the child abandonment charge.

It's just not right that when stranger kidnappings are increasingly rare, police and child welfare workers are more eager to punish parents who let kids play on their own.

"A Utah law guarantees that giving kids some reasonable independence isn't 'neglect,'" says Lenore Skenazy, of the nonprofit Let Grow, "More states need this!"

Of course, some parents are so neglectful that government should intervene.

But as lawyer Phillips put it, they should intervene "only if you are subjecting your child to a real harm. We should not have unreasonable intrusions by the government telling us every little detail how to raise our children."


NEXT: Brickbat: Just a Girl Who Can't Say No

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  1. I’ve been arguing for years that it’s overt child abuse to raise children to be afraid of strangers. No one is less likely to molest or take advantage of a child than a stranger. A child who is lost or otherwise in need of assistance should be trained to approach a stranger and request help. Children should know their parents’ cell phone numbers by the age of three. This is what we’ve done with our children, and it’s worked beautifully. Sure, it’s embarrassing to hear your name be paged overhead when your little one wanders off in the museum or department store, but at least you know he’s calm and collected. It sure beats having one of those helpless brats who collapses into a pathetic heap of tears and screams the moment he loses sight of Mommy’s apron strings.

    1. “I’ve been arguing for years that it’s overt child abuse to raise children to be afraid of strangers.”

      The problem is it’s the parents who are afraid of strangers, and increasingly everyone else. With your need to train your kids to be in constant touch with you, you’re part of the problem.

      1. The problem is that we are now into a second full generation of this. If you weren’t born before about 1970, you grew up with this foolishness, and those who did are now raising their own kids.

        1. I take your point, but I think the underlying problem is the pervasive feeling of insecurity. But dating it back to the 1970s seems to be accurate. Before then, it was nuclear annihilation that scared us, which, in retrospect, seems a healthy and even benign concern. What has changed since then?

          1. Perhaps it is chicken and egg, but I’ve been nursing a hypothesis that what changed was mass communications. Prior to the 50’s and 60’s, news came in a paper, or maybe on a radio, and the number of sources and available space meant that only the big stories got covered. One did not hear about every incident 3000 miles away. (And some things were not talked about “in polite society”.) At the same time, as society has become safer, each individual event becomes more newsworthy as an oddity, so it does get greater and greater coverage. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to understand statistics (I had an argument with someone who said that if a given event had two states [happening vs not happening], then the odds were 50/50 that it would happen. He was serious and my head nearly exploded once I understood what he was trying to tell me.)

            1. LOL I use that line to troll people at the poker table!

              1. Holy crap, I use that line to show people how stupid a basic ignorance of statistics and probability is. “Now, just because either the Sun will come up tomorrow or the Sun will not come up tomorrow, nobody’s silly enough to think it’s a 50/50 chance the Sun will come up tomorrow, right?” I’ve never had anybody yet give me a puzzled look and say, “Uh, you wanna run that by me again?”

                Generally, this comes up in relation to a discussion of the latest “new study shows” crap and the meaning of p and p-hacking. You do realize that things that have a 5% probability of happening just by random chance tend to happen just by random chance about 5% of the time, right? So if the people who came out with this new study showing that shoving a pineapple up your ass cures itchy knee syndrome were looking at 500 different things that might be affected by shoving a pineapple up your ass, guess how many things are going to give you a spurious cause-and-effect relationship just by random chance?

                1. Read a day or two ago, in a report about the over the top fear of the inane coronia thingie that any given individual in the US is more likely to die by getting tangled up i n their own bedsheets than die from the coronai virus.

                  Yet here we go, threatening to cancel all manner of evenda, travels, etc. . Good grief CDC numbers put the deth rate of common winder flu in the uS about 6.5%. So far, even in CHina the death rate from COronavirus is just under 2%. and ALL but two, as of a week ago, deaths in China were amongst OLD people already very compromised by serious health issues… if you’re healthy youre not gonna die of it, likely not even get sick from it. More people die of complications of the flu vaccines than die of the flu itself. But medical doods won’t be talking about THAT any time soon, weill they?

          2. Also, nuclear annihilation was wholesale, nothing personal. You really couldn’t do much to stop it. But this “stranger danger” crap is retail, one on one, and an individual does have some chance of lessening the odds (to the extent that the odds are significant in the first place).

            In fact, I recall an episode of Star Trek (late 80’s version) where there was some paranoid society and the gag-line was that all the time the crew was on the planet, someone was always ringing a gong and screaming “stranger, danger”, and everyone (the crew, and the TV audience) acknowledged how absurd this level of paranoia was.

          3. Except that, in the early 1960s, school was already telling us not to “talk to” strangers. As a child I couldn’t understand why they would give us that advice, and I still can’t.

            1. The nuanced difference is, that we were told not to talk to strangers (or get in their car), but we still (without parental supervision) walked to school, played outside all over the neighborhood, etc.

          4. What has changed since then?

            IMO – it was the seat belt and ‘right turn on red’. Seriously. Seat belts were first mandated in cars in the late 1960’s. The result was that drivers felt safer and were safer – so vehicular speed went up. Total motor vehicle fatalities started going down – but it was entirely occupants. Pedestrian fatalities went up – and esp for young people (then boomers).

            Right turn on red started happening state-by-state after the 1973 oil crisis in order to save gas – up until I guess the early 80’s when most all states had it. Again – pedestrian fatalities took a big jump up as drivers got in the habit of not even stopping at intersections (eliminating the habitual safety rules of peds crossing then protected by the lights) and looking left while turning right.

            The combo of faster vehicle speed away from intersection – and far less ped protection at the intersection – meant that pedestrian fatalities peaked in 1980.
            12% of all ped fatalities then were under-10 (2.4% now)
            14% were 10-20 (5.8% now)
            Both easily the major cause of death in those age groups

            Which is also when boomers started having millennials. Like all new parents with an obsession about the safety of their newborn precious. The childhood diseases (major cause of childhood death for their generation) had been nearly eradicated. The main death danger was now another person – not a bug. And the only way they saw to eliminate it was to drive kids everywhere (thus also eliminating a slew of pedestrians and almost all bikers) – and express increasing paranoia throughout the 80’s about stranger danger.

            1. At least, getting hit by a car is a real danger. It’s appropriate to worry about kids walking around cities and towns because people drive like assholes.

              Even though people are assholes, they’re rarely psychopathic killers who kidnap children.

    2. “A child… should be trained to approach a stranger”

      (*glares suspiciously at Nonstopdrivel*)
      Do you, by chance, happen to own a white van?

    3. I’ve been arguing for years that it’s overt child abuse to raise children to be afraid of strangers.

      The problem is it’s the parents who are afraid of strangers

      What is with you projecting morons? Why does *everything* have to me motivated by fear?

      “Kids, a very high percentage of strangers are self-involved basketcases, high strung, hyper-vigilant nitwits, outright fucking douchebags, or a combination of the three. Engage them only when absolutely necessary and don’t ever put up with their bullshit.”

      1. “Why does *everything* have to me motivated by fear? ”

        Anxiety is probably more accurate than fear. Prozac, Zoloft, and similar drugs are widely prescribed (for adults and children) to deal with the problem.

  2. Ads now cover over three-quarters of the Latest page—to say nothing of those abominable Anyclip autoplay videos that pop up randomly and force me to keep my phone on mute. Seriously, Reason, are you trying to drive away your readership?

    1. You can barely even see Stossel’s ‘stache in that screenshot. That is an outrage!

    2. Is it Reason’s fault for wanting ad revenue or your fault for not installing an ad blocker?

  3. “What if a man came and just snatched her?” asked one.

    Well, it turns out that what happened is a man in a blue suit came and just snatched her, didn’t it? And inflicted mental and physical abuse; just not sexual abuse.
    So the busybody was right after all.

    1. ^ Wins the thread

    2. lol exactly.

    3. kabooom

  4. The latest boogeyman is named Mr. Coronavirus.

    1. and too few people are able to realise he is a big fraud, a nothingveganburger of the worst most worthless kind.

      Ignore him. Maybe pass him th e ketchup.

  5. In jail, they berated her.

    “You can’t leave a child who is 9 years old in the park by herself!” said one officer. “What if some sex offender came by?”

    In a few years that 9-year-old they are saving will similarly be seen as an enemy they can use to puff stats and feel superior.

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    1. Is this for teaching English on-line?
      Asking for a friend – – – –

  7. “What if a man came and just snatched her?” asked one.

    ¿¿Where is this, mexico??

  8. This doesn’t protect kids. It mostly scares parents into depriving their kids of chances to learn. “When you don’t let them spread their wings, that’s when they get in trouble!” says Debra.

    That sounds just like what a pedophile or a child sex trafficker would say. Maybe I should alert the authorities.

  9. “What if some sex offender came by?”
    … “What if a man came and just snatched her?”

    “Or ***shudders*** a SPACE ALIEN?!”

    1. Trump’s going to build a dome, and make Proxima Centauri pay for it.

  10. We brought this on ourselves once we started chauffeuring our little snowflakes around everywhere. Why are you such a snowflake? Where is your chauffeur?

    1. “Why are you such a snowflake?”

      The feeling of insecurity keeps growing. What else would explain parents taking valuable time to drive their children to and from school when everyone else manages to walk or take public transport?

      1. Public transport?

        When I was a kid, that meant riding in the bed of a pickup truck.

        1. In cities like Seoul and Tokyo, parents feel confident enough to send their children to school alone by subway.

          1. Morning school commute in NL

            Granted this is a 7-12 level school – where a 10k bike commute is not completely unusual – and field trips are often by bike too. But even in elementary, a lot of kids bike to school (incl via ‘bike buses’ and other means) before the ‘bike education’ class in 4th grade. And all schools prohibit car drop-offs within one block of the school cuz stressed parents dropping their kids off via car are a vehicular threat/obstruction to the other kids walking/biking.

            There’s safety in numbers. And kids on bikes quickly learn the joys of independence.

            1. “There’s safety in numbers.”

              Numbers my ass. I bet those Dutch parents make sure their school bound kids are armed with knuckle dusters, saps, piano wire, and other child-friendly weapons.

            2. you had a “bike class” in fourth grade? I rode my bike to school four miles each way, in thierd grade, and often wit advance permissioin/notification, to friends’ houses after school. I’d often put in twenty miles (32Km) in a day on an old pig baloon tyred bike that my Dad had bought used for five bucks when HE was a kid, some twenty plus years before. By the time I was in high school I had a decent road bike, and rode literally all over Southern California, from Camp Pendleton to north of Los Angeles, east to Sam Bernardino. March AF Base, up into Big Bear and Arrowhead, down to Elsinore.. much of it solo. The ONLY two requirements were these: do NOT call for a ride home, unless sigificantly hurt, and DO NOT be late for supper.

              That experience has done more toward my success as an adult than all the schooling I had put together. I had to be innovative, resourceful, learn good judgement, sometimes by first trying bad judgenent first.. and still make it home in time for supper. Oh, responsiblity, o”owning’ my desicioins. is a part of that game set.

              1. No. NL has a bike education class in 4th grade in all schools. Virtually all kids ride bikes to school starting on day one. But early on its via a hodgepodge of bike buses and boxfiets and carrier seats and parents accompanying them and training wheels and etc. Note the complete absence of helmets on those kids. By 4th grade the school system say – ok everyone is now old enough to do this on their own – so have the bike class. I’d bet its more to reassure the parents – but there is stuff on bike maintenance and safety too.

              2. I agree totally about that ‘finding your own way around the world’. It’s as profound a learning experience as learning to walk. Except its about discovering the world instead of your house – and it occurs when we can still remember it throughout our life.

    2. God, yes. I live about 150 yards from an elementary school. They let parents pick up kids starting at 3:30pm. When I drive by at 2:30pm there are already people in their SUVs waiting in line. Like its some kind of contest to be there first. What the fuck are these douchebags doing in life where waiting in line for over an hour every day is somehow the thing to do?

      Oh, and there is a lady who lives 4 houses away from me who used to drive her larvae to school every day and pick them up in her SUV. She lives fucking 220 yards from the school!

      Jeesus fucking christ!

      1. No wonder kids are fat! (And adults.) Is this woman so obese that she has trouble walking? Chances are, if she isn’t yet, with that attitude towards walking, she will be, and her kids will also turn into immobile pigs.

        In 1958, I lived about that far from my kindergarten, and walked – by myself after the first few days. In four different towns and school systems, I walked or biked to school, up to about half a mile. The first time a school bus was available was for Junior High, starting in 7th grade. But that was only 1.4 miles away, a short bike ride, so I only took the bus when the snow got too deep. (If people had been better about shoveling the sidewalks, I might have walked in about the same time as waiting for the bus.) It wasn’t until we moved out to a farm, in 9th grade, that I had to take the school bus – because there was no way my parents would have been driving kids around every day.

  11. >> prosecutors charged Debra Harrell with “willful abandonment of a child,”

    willful abandonment of common sense, prosecutors. get that D.A. slot! run for mayor!

  12. Boy, my parents would have been I trouble. I walked to and from school at age 7, with no sidewalks in my neighborhood, and after homework, it was basically, “Have fun, and come home when dad blows the conch shell.”

    1. “Have fun, and come home when dad blows the conch shell.”

      Dude, those are your parents. Gross!

    2. When I was a kid outside of Pittsburgh, I walked to school down the same trails that hunters used. Nobody saw this as unusual or freaked out.

    3. We called the mailmen “conch shells” where I grew up…

    4. I grew up walking to school too. Just close enough to walk and not quite far enough to get the bus. When I got home it was do the homework and then go outside and play. And don’t come back inside until the street lights come on.

  13. ‘”You can’t leave a child who is 9 years old in the park by herself!” said one officer. “What if some sex offender came by?”‘

    What if one did? Most “sex offenders” are only guilty of shariah violations like public urination or consensual sex with their girlfriend when they were both teenagers 20 years before. If the officer was really worried about a pedophile molesting a 9 year old, he should have advised the mother to avoid TSA checkpoints.

    1. “If the officer was really worried about a pedophile molesting a 9 year old, he should have advised the mother to avoid TSA checkpoints.”

      It’s a wonderful world. There’s a moral panic fit for every political inclination.

    2. Don’t you be disrespecting our fine TSA heroes! They catch like 9% of illegal contraband. If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is. Ohhhhhh sayyyyyy cannnnn youuuu seeee…..

  14. This train has sailed.

    People are sheep and they do what society dictates. Citing facts and statistics isn’t going to move the needle of stupidity. You’re not going to stuff this back in the bottle. It’s for the chilrenz!

  15. The sad truth is that we’ve become a nation of cowards, scared of our own shadows. From a statistical standpoint, we’re always afraid of all the wrong things. I think many of us truly believe that if we just take the ‘right’ precautions and sacrifice just enough liberty, we’ll somehow achieve immortality. I have to believe back when people actually died young from disease and malnutrition and frequently faced death on the battlefield and whatnot, Americans understood the price and value of freedom and savored it that much more.

    On a separate note, I never see kids outside playing anymore, which amazes and baffles me. In the late 80s, we spent most of our lives outside playing sports, riding bikes clear across town, skateboarding and playing ‘army’ in the woods (back then, the cops would wave at us and tell us how cool we looked; now we’d probably be shot.) Hell, a buddy and me had a run-in with a pervert who chased us and waved his dick at us, and while disturbing, I didn’t crumple up in a ball and die (and must commend the cops for their response – they took it very seriously). My single Mom would be on Death Row by today’s standards!

    1. “In the late 80s, we spent most of our lives outside playing sports, riding bikes clear across town, skateboarding and playing ‘army’ in the woods”

      Probably because other kids were doing the same thing. Same reason why kids in Seoul commute to school by subway. Not because they are less cowardly than their American counterparts.

    2. I have hope that in a few years, the generation growing up will realize how dumb social media is and go outside to play.

    3. If a guy tattooed his dick with an American flag, would it be pervy or patriotic for him to wave it at random strangers? Asking for a friend…

      1. “Pervriotic”

  16. So good. The reality is, if you think that letting your child play alone at the park is more dangerous today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, you are simply wrong. Statistics are real. Your kids are safer today than they’ve ever been, this is the reality. Society needs to stop buying into media hype that makes them think that violence, abductions etc are more common today when they are less common.

  17. From 6 until 18, my parents had no idea where I was when I left on my bicycle, dirt motorcycle, snowmobile, and finally car when I got my drivers license. If I was home for supper and by my age appropriate age curfew, they didn’t even ask. When I was older, often my mode of transportation was home, but I was not, yet they never knew or worried. No one ever questioned them or arrested them. I guess it was really a different age and time, it was the 60’s and early 70’s. Kids no longer are allowed to grow up and experience the world on their own. Yet we wonder why they are snowflakes.

    1. It was still like that up though the 80s, but changed very soon thereafter. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a parent walking their child around on a leash, in the early 1990s. At the time I thought it was the most horrible and disgusting thing I’d ever seen, but looking back that was the period when all this lunacy began.

      1. Hah, I raised and trained four different dogs to stay home, heel, stay out of trouble, not dig in the yard… never had a lead on any of them. They WERE totally responsive to gentle voice commands. They all learned to LISTEN to my voice and respond, Now. Imagine MY shock when I first saw kids on a lead.. hah, don’tchya know how to trai your kid, lady? I’ve done better with my dogs.

      2. I knew a guy who put a harness on his son, and clipped a line on the harness. The other end of the line was on a good strong cleat in the galley of the cabin. On a boat. And the kid was 3 and a holy terror given to trying new things (as he should be a that age).

        But aside from that, yeah, it’s a pretty sad thought.

  18. One factor that drives all this stupid kids cano’t be trusted on their own mut must be micromanaged to OUR satisfaction (always changing) is this: nearly every Child Protective Service in the nation is highly motivated to discover, find, or make up/imagine all manner of reasons to take kids into custory. WHY? Because of HUGE federal grants that accure to the county for each child they have in foster car or other custody. Its their bread and butter. The figures paid to the county are shocking, and need to be ended. There is a twisted pressure to conjure up excuses to take kids from their parents. That pressure is in the form of tonnes of greenbacks pushing against the doors of CPS agency offices.

    A practice that MUST be ended.

  19. A lawyer took a case for free? That’s the most improbable part of the story.

  20. You lost me at “police and child welfare workers frightened into taking absurd steps.” If police and child welfare workers are “frightened” by anything, it’s the prospect of doing any actual work. Single working parents letting their kids play in parks or walk to and from school alone are easy targets for lazy, incompetent bullies.

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