PRESS EDITORIAL: Parenting in the age of fear

Children in America have never been safer than they are now.

That statement is based on statistics compiled by the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most striking of the statistics are those related to every parent’s worst nightmare—the kidnapping of a child.

FBI data show that missing children reports are at an all-time low.

The actual number of children reported missing has decreased by 40% since 1947, even as the population increased by 30%.

What’s more, few of the missing child investigations involved a crime; 96% of the children reported missing were runaways.

According to the FBI, only 0.1% of the cases involved a stranger abducting, or attempting to abduct, a child.

These numbers provide a disturbing context for the story of the Illinois mother who was investigated by police and a government social services agency for allowing her 8-year-old daughter to walk her dog in her suburban neighborhood while not in the company of a parent.

The child was walking on Aug. 2 with the leashed dog on a sidewalk in the block in which her home is located in Wilmette with the permission of her mother.

An unidentified person called police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service to report a possible case of parental neglect.

Police came to the house.

The child, whose name is Dorothy, told a TV reporter, “I was like really scared” by the sight of a squad car in front her house and the sound of its siren.

After interviewing Cory Widen, Dorothy’s mother, the police department dropped the matter.

But the state agency undertook an investigation.

Widen felt so threatened that she hired a lawyer.

She was finally cleared of any wrongdoing two weeks after the alarm had been raised over a third-grader seen outside of her home without a parent.

Welcome to the age of fear.

It’s an age when behavior of children that was for generations considered normal and harmless can be viewed as so risky that authorities must be informed and suspect parents reported.

It’s an age when the unreasonable fear of predators has created a climate of dread in which some parents deny their children freedoms that have long been among the joys of being a kid, while parents who let their children enjoy those freedoms may be at risk of being arrested or investigated.

Many who grew up in the communities of Ozaukee County or raised their children here remember an age—not that long ago—when being a child meant playing in parks, running around their neighborhoods until dark and walking to school, all without hovering parents.

In that age, the notion of calling police because an 8-year-old was seen on a sidewalk without a parent would have been dismissed as deranged human behavior.

How did we get to the point where normal children’s play is restricted and parental judgment is questioned out of fear of the exaggerated threat of various evildoers?

The internet, where bogus information posing as fact, frightening rumors and exaggerated or concocted “stranger danger” stories thrive, has helped fuel the dread.

A number of YouTube videos purport to show how easy it is to kidnap a child.

Some of the videos include narration that inflates reports of child snatchings in the United States to a terrifying and totally false number.

Social media posts tell dubious stories of near kidnappings.

Others call out parents for alleged failures to protect their children from the menace of dangerous strangers.
    The age of fear has spawned a number of episodes of policing parental behavior similar to the experience of the Wilmette, Ill., mother and daughter.

Legislators in the state of Utah reacted to the trend recently by passing a law specifying that it is not a crime for a parent to permit a child to “engage in independent activities” such as walking or biking to school or playing outside.

Other states are considering similar laws.

It seems strange that a law would be needed to define common sense parenting.

But maybe that makes it the right law for strange times.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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