Free-Range Kids

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Warns About Unsafe 'Back-to-Schooling'

You're more likely to be struck by a meteor than to have your kid abducted by a stranger.


The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) gets about $40 million a year in federal funding. It spends at least a few of those bucks crafting unnecessary emails like the one I got last week with the subject line: "Are your kids safely back-to-schooling?"

Not only is "back-to-schooling" not a verb, but also the question seems geared less toward making kids safe and more toward making parents terrified to ever let their kids leave the house.

Dear Lenore, the letter begins:

Routine bus stops, children biking or walking to school, and after-school pick-ups by parents are back all over America as we embark on another year of learning.

"While we are all excited for the year ahead, it is important to keep in mind one of the most important statistics we at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) know all too well—that attempted abductions occur more often when a child is going to or from school or school-related activities."

But why are we talking about attempted abductions at all? I get that kidnapping is NCMEC's calling card, but if we're really concerned about keeping kids safe on the way to school, why focus on the least likely of all dangers? Why not talk about pedestrian safety? Or the danger of driving the kids to school? After all, about 1,000 kids under age 14 die as car passengers each year.

Meanwhile, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics for 2019, just published this year, somewhere between 52 and 306 children were abducted by strangers in Law & Order style kidnappings. About 8 percent of them were killed.

Those cases are horrible and heartbreaking. They are also extremely rare, thank goodness. In a country of 73,000,000 minors, we're talking about 1 in 2.5 million. For comparison, National Geographic estimates that your chance of dying from a "local meteorite, asteroid or comet impact is" 1 in 1.6 million.

Maybe NCMEC should warn about that? Don't let your kids leave the house without an iron umbrella?

The email goes on to tell parents—in bold—that: "School-age children are at greatest risk on school days before and after school (7-9 a.m. and 3-4 p.m.) and after dinner time (6-7 p.m.)."

That makes it sound as if all children are at risk of being kidnapped anytime they are not  sitting at home on the couch.

I asked NCMEC why it bothers warning parents about such rare events, and a spokesperson replied: "At NCMEC, our number one priority is the safety and protection of children.We are able to empower families with information to better protect their children and highlight the importance of having conversations about personal safety."

I agree that it's good to tell kids never to get into a car with strangers. Run, scream, etc. But these kids-are-in-danger-anytime-they're-outside warnings come at a social cost. Amped up fears of stranger danger are at least part of the reason only 11 percent of kids walk to school anymore. They're part of the reason kids play outside on their own only an average of four to seven minutes per day. They're part of the reason parents get arrested or investigated for trusting their kids to walk the dogplay in front of the house, or wait in the car while mom dashes into Starbucks.

The authorities act as if those parents put their kids in serious danger. I recently testified on behalf of a mom accused of neglect for letting her son play at the park for half an hour. The state's rebuttal was that it didn't matter how unlikely abduction was—as long as it was possible at all.

Just like the meteor strike.

We don't arrest parents for feeding their kids solid food, or living in a house with stairs, even though the very sad statistics show that 140 children choke to death each year, and about 100 die from falls. The authorities understand that, yes, rare tragedies happen, but we can't start criminalizing everyday life—except when it comes to giving kids some outdoors independence.