September 5, 2009 8:20:00 PM
Recently I was talking with a friend from Jackson who told me she was keeping her pre-school grandson. He had taken her cell phone when he went outside to play. When she got after him about it, he protested that he had to have it in order to call for help if he got kidnapped.
That brought both of us up short. What was a pre-schooler doing worried about kidnapping? The conversation made me think of the recent furor caused when a local mother was reprimanded by police for allowing her 7-year-old son to walk to school alone, as he had requested. The incident made national news.
What have we come to?
I thought back -- long, long ago -- to my own childhood. We covered the town, unsupervised, on our bicycles (no helmets, either), on skates, or by foot. Of course, "town" was smaller then, with fewer people and fewer vehicles. Were we really safer, or did we just feel that way?
Kidnapping was a threat then, too. A question nagged at me. Our population has increased greatly. With the current divorce rate of about 50 percent, many kidnappings are parental. Making allowances for that, do we have more kidnappings and other crimes just because we have more people, are we just aware of more because of better communications, or is there an increase in the percentage of kidnappings relative to our population? I thought that knowledge might tell us if we were becoming better or worse as a society.
Finding that information proved to be more difficult than I anticipated, because I was using my computer, which conspires with gremlins floating around out there in the ether to frustrate me. I started out looking for the total populations of the United States for several censuses, but it dumped every other kind of statistic on me, such as housing trends and economic demographics. This is what I was able to sift out:
I think the U.S. population in 1930 was 122,775,046. In 1980 it was 304,059,724. Our population has increased numerically so much that we are living closer together, and there are more predators even if the proportions had remained the same.
In 1982 the number of missing persons reported to law enforcement was 154,341. In 2000 it had increased 468 percent, to 876,213. The increase of missing children since 1988 is 500 percent. About half of those are from ages 4 to 11, and 74 percent are girls. The FBI receives more than 2,000 missing child reports every day.
According to the Vanished Children''s Alliance, every 40 seconds a child disappears or is kidnapped in the U.S. In 2002 the Miami Herald reported 3,000-5,000 non-family child abductions each year. (The above-mentioned statistics were provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Klass Kids Foundation.)
So, yes, my friend''s grandson was justified in his fears, but it seems so very sad.
I was unable to find the number of kidnappings in 1930 or 1940, but to my surprise there were articles reporting an increase of kidnappings in the ''30s. It is interesting, but perhaps not relevant, that this was during our greatest economic depression. It was also around the time of one of the most famous kidnappings of our history, that of the Lindbergh baby.
The son of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was born the same year I was, kidnapped when he was about 2, and later found murdered. The subsequent arrest, trial, and execution of Bruno Hauptman filled the newspapers for several years.
As a young child, I often heard the grown-ups talking about it. Yes, like my friend''s grandson, I was scared. Somehow I heard the word as if it were "kitnapping," so I thought abductors had big cat faces and put children in croker sacks. (Had I heard the word "knapsacks?") When I finally confessed my fears to my father, he laughed at me, saying, "Betty, you don''t need to worry. We don''t have enough money for anyone to try to get a ransom for you."
Nowadays, however, the motives seem to be even more sinister. The Klass Kids Foundation (young Polly Klass was abducted from her home), states:
"If any other segment of our population were so impacted, we would declare an epidemic; the Center for Disease Control would find a cure; we would pass and enforce legislation; and we would increase private and public security. But since it is only our children, many in our society accept these appalling numbers as status quo."
I don''t think most of us accept that status quo. Conscientious families do try very hard to protect their children. But it still seems to me to be so sad that, in trying to do so, even in this country that cherishes freedom, they must deprive those children of carefree, spontaneous activities we associate with youth.
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.