Friday, October 12, 2007

Beware of strange perceptions!

Last week as I jog-limped my way* through a new development near my house, a smiling boy of 5 or 6 walked to the end of his driveway with an arm extended. He held out for my inspection a burnished piece of rock that he described as a "fozzil"; he told me he'd dug it up during a recent camp-out in his backyard. Such was his enthusiasm for his find that I decided to jog in place and listen to him for a few moments, putting aside the adult concerns with which I normally torment myself during runs.

But I soon grew edgy again, anyway. There I was, a tall, sweaty, bestubbled stranger in sunglasses (no less), stooped over this little guy in knee pants. I felt that all around me, people were peering through their miniblinds with one hand on the telephone (and maybe the other on a .357 magnum). So when I saw his front door crack open, and I heard a woman's voice admonish him to "Get in the house, Josh!", I jogged on; he shouted the rest of his story to my back.

Such is life in latter-day America. Our nightly news and talk shows toggle from Amish school killer Charles Roberts and his KY Jelly, to Rep. Mark Foley and his underwear-themed chats, to updates on the surreally weird John Mark Karr (pictured)—you remember him, don't you?—whose claim to fame, as it turned out, was that he's among the 299.99 million Americans who did not kill JonBenet Ramsey. Before long, the next candidate for Pedophile of the Week will take center stage. Meanwhile, amid this presidential season, campaigning politicians at all levels call press conferences to announce major initiatives that will "protect America's children from the predator next door!" Now I grant you, among a society's foremost concerns is the safety of its children—particularly very young children, like Josh. They're defenseless against evildoers. But somewhere along the line we must balance that legitimate concern against—well—reality. And the reality is that we are needlessly terrifying ourselves, traumatizing our children, and unfairly stigmatizing men as a class.

A shocking fact: Believe it or not, some male strangers actually aren't pedophiles! In fact, the odds that a child of JonBenet age will randomly encounter a sexual predator in the course of her normal outside activities are remarkably low.

In one recent year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were about 88,000 documented cases of sexual abuse among juveniles nationwide. However, just one in seven involved a child under 6. That reduces the number of JonBenet-like cases to roughly 12,500. Still a worrisome number, right? But get this: Strangers were the molesters in just 3 percent of those cases (and in just 5 percent of all cases involving children up to age 12). That leaves us with a total of about 375 molestations of children age 6 and under. And in almost half of those, the molesters were other juveniles!

Bottom line, roughly 200 kids were victims of molestation by adult strangers. There are about 24 million children under age 6 in the U.S. That means that on average, all things being equal,** the odds that any given child will be molested by some random adult this year are roughly 24 million divided by 200—or 1 in 120,000. If my math is correct, that translates to a .000008 chance of being molested. (I say "if my math is correct" because my computer's calculator won't even process a percentage that small.)

Not quite the impression you got from Nancy Grace, huh?

By comparison, in 2005, some 43,000 people died on American roads. Though statistical analogies between different realms are always suspect, it hardly seems unreasonable to propose that most kids are at least as likely to die in their mother's car on the way to the park as to be assaulted by some sinister male stranger once they get there.

Sure, parental vigilance could be partly responsible for the low numbers. But 3 percent? And remember, I'm not advocating less vigilance, per se. I'm advocating less paranoia. In the end, the jarring but factually supported truth is this: If your child is not molested in your own home—by you, your significant other, or someone else you invited in—chances are your child will never be molested anywhere. As the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute puts it in a position paper, "Right now, 90 percent of our efforts go toward protecting our children from strangers, when what we need to do is to focus 90 percent of our efforts toward protecting children from the abusers who are not strangers." Political correctness requires that these topics be treated delicately so as not to infringe on the "sexual rights" of young women, but I'll say it plainly here: Single moms, the people you really want to worry about are the guys you bring home to bed.

Overall, what we're looking at is one of the eternal realities of the news business (i.e. that "news" usually = "bad news") compounded by one of the core realities of the global-media age (i.e. that every bit of "breaking news!" achieves ubiquity within hours, if not minutes). Thus, we're constantly bombarded with negative imagery. And imagery distorts truth. (To show how perception trumps reality: In a 2000 ABC News poll, just 5 percent of respondents rated crime in their own neighborhoods as "very bad," yet 80 percent of those same respondents thought crime in America as a whole was "bad" or "very bad." The catch-22 should be evident: If crime were really that pervasive, it would have to be happening in a lot more than 5 percent of people's "own neighborhoods." Tellingly, when asked where they got their impressions from, 82 percent of respondents said "TV news.")

The incidence of child abduction and molestation is probably*** no worse than it was pre-CNN, despite what activists and the irredeemably fatalistic Ms. Grace would have you believe. But because the news business is no longer the independent enterprise it was in days gone by (today it's just another profit center in the media mix), and because ratings confirm the cultural appetite for these stories, news outlets will try to get such stories on-air and keep them there for as long as possible. And people will keep watching. So the cycle repeats and the perceptions get reinforced. Mothers clutch their kids a little tighter to them when you pass by them in the supermarket aisles, and kids like Josh can't share an innocent moment with a passing grandpa jogger.

To those of us who truly enjoy children—for all the right reasons—it's a damn shame.

* Alas, I'm nursing an assortment of injuries post-baseball this year.
** which they're not, always. Children raised in certain infelicitous settings have a much higher probability of being molested. But "much higher" is still a relative description. In absolute terms, the odds remain quite low. Needless to say, this means that children raised in what we call "good" settings have a molestation-probability far lower than 1 in 120,000.
*** In my opinion, as well as that of other knowledgeable insiders, then-and-now stats can't really be trusted/compared because of wholesale changes in tracking methodologies, statistical analysis, today's much more ambitious data-collection outreach, etc. It's simply apples and oranges.


P.S. QUESTION: Is it just me? Or is everybody else suddenly inundated with emails from people like "Mr. Tony Brown of Nigeria," who want to share their vast wealth with us if we'll just show our good faith by giving them all the info they need to steal our identities and raid our bank accounts? This scam was really hot a few years ago—it's even spoofed in a current commercial for some financial-services company—but I can't believe it's come back with such a vengeance. People still fall for this stuff? Oh wait, I forgot...people also buy The Secret.


Anonymous said...

Steve, great post I agree with you totally. You should see the looks I get sometimes when I stop to talk to a kid in the store, even if my wife is standing right next to me. And yes I'm also getting those annoying emails almost everyday now.

gregory said...

yeah, i know... it is all because of self-help books.... not!

i talk to anybody, and never get looks, except the usual "who is the crazy guy talking to anybody" looks of the suburban class...

paranoia is self- generated.... why are you doing it, america? what is the strategy designed to achieve for you?

people usually can tell a loving heart, and pure motive, and if they can't that is not your problem, but theirs...

don't stop talking to kids, that would be as silly as believing in terrorists out to get us...

Matt Dick said...

I hate "stranger danger". As you point out, it simply isn't accurate on any level.

My 6 year-old son came home from a day camp a few weeks ago and helpfully told me about stranger danger. I was luke-warm in my response, and I explained that most people were not out to get him. A few days later we were driving on I-90 near O'Hare (not relevant but remarkable that I actually recall where we were), and he piped up out of no where that "Daddy, sometimes strangers dress up like the police and grab kids, too."

So now what am I to do? I turned off the radio, stopped the car (we were essentially stopped in traffic anyway), turned around, made eye contact, and said, "That is not true. The police will *always* help you if you are in trouble."

Seriously, outside of Dean Koontz novels, how many of that 200 adult-male-stranger molestations start with an impersonation of a police officer? I'm guessing not one. And how many bad situations occur where kids *should* go find a cop and ask for help? Lots and lots. It's just absurd on so many levels.

Mary Anne said...

Your post reminds me of how the word "predator" has been hijacked. Due to the popularity of the NBC show, it is now associated with molesters. What do you men teach your sons about this? One day they too will be feared by children at the rate this is going. On another note, I think there is A LOT of denial about molestation in the home. To address the problem, the problem has to be recognized and there are lot of people who do not want to do that.

Steve Salerno said...

When I pause to talk to kids in supermarket carts--let me clarify: they are in the carts, not me--which is something I do quite often, my wife invariably runs to my side, thereby presumably demonstrating to the mother-in-question that, inasmuch as I am accompanied by a middle-aged female who can "vouch" for me, I do not represent a grave danger to the child. That kinda irks me, if you want to know the truth. But I guess I understand it.