How long must a child be left unattended before he or she is abducted by a stranger?

Friends visiting from California invited me to the Westin near Copley Square for breakfast. A girl who seemed to be 2-3 years old was playing with her mom. She spilled some of the mom’s coffee and, while the mom went to get napkins to wipe it up, ran and hid behind my chair, a huge smile on her face. The mom came back and called for her child, working herself into a loud state of panic within about 15 seconds after the first call. I finally caught her eye and gestured that the girl was hiding behind me. The mom was relieved and lightly scolded the girl. The lobby of the Westin is on the second floor of a big tower. If the girl did not get on an escalator she could not have gotten very far. I asked the mother what she had been afraid of. She replied “A stranger taking her.” I asked “How long do you think you’d have to leave a child unattended before there was a 50 percent chance that she would be abducted by a stranger?” The mom’s answer was “5 minutes.”

This got me wondering what the real answer might be. is a U.S. Department of Justice report that says that there are about 115 “stereotypical” child kidnappings in the U.S. each year and that teenagers are most at risk. We parents of young kids think that our children are the most precious things in the world, but it seems that, at least statistically, few other adults want them. There were about 72 million children in the U.S. during the 1999 year that the Feds made their survey. So a child has a 1 in 626,000 chance of being kidnapped in any given year and most of those are teenagers who are left unattended for at least 2-3 hours per day. If we take a one hour/day figure (averaging in young children, who are seldom unattended for long), that’s 26 billion unattended-child-hours nationwide during which 115 kidnappings occur (assume that no kidnappings occur when a child is watched by an adult). That’s approximately one kidnapping every 228 million hours or one every 26,000 years.

I can’t think of a good way to get a more precise number for toddlers. The government says that they are much less likely to be kidnapped than teenagers, but on the other hand toddlers are also typically fairly closely monitored by an adult (at least looking through a kitchen window into a backyard).

Anybody find an error in the above calculations? And what do we do with the result? Will knowing the statistics make it less likely that we will panic when a child falls momentarily out of sight? Can we follow our heads or must we be slaves to our (jumpy) hearts?

10 thoughts on “How long must a child be left unattended before he or she is abducted by a stranger?

  1. Speaking from experience as a parent, I thinking the jumpy heart reaction is mostly involuntary. Even the most coldly logical parent, upon not seeing their toddler where they expected them, will immediately panic.

  2. I think you actually want to use all “nonfamily abductions” from that study. If you look on page 4, they define a number of scenarios that are all sufficiently harrowing and unpleasant that no parent would want their kid to go through that. In that case, since there are 58,200 nonfamily abductions per year, you have respectively a 1 in 1237 chance of abduction each year and 51 years as your mean time to abduction.

  3. 20 years ago, TV news organizations started hiring consultants to increase their ratings. It turns out we like to hear the news from people who like us, and are concerned about us, and like each other. Newscasters started lightly bantering, and more personally, started watching out for our children. We received warnings about poison in halloween candy (“don’t eat any that’s unwrapped!”) and child abductions and precautions received disproportionate coverage. We liked the handsome newscaster who was so worried about our children. But we started thinking of our neighborhoods as much more dangerous.

  4. When I was a child, I was *terrified* of being kidnapped. Terrified. My very sensible parents had me read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” and promised me that a similar fate would befall me were I ever to be kidnapped. I got over it. Then again, my siblings and I also regularly walked the half mile to school by ourselves from 1st grade on, so maybe my parents were highly unusual by today’s standards.

  5. JP: Good point. Digging deeper into the PDF brings us to Table 3 where it says that 37 percent of the “nonfamily abductions” involved a “stranger”. The hotel lobby scenario that I described in the original posting involved a woman afraid of a stranger (after all, if she had traveled to Boston from another city it would be unlikely that anyone else in the lobby knew her child). So we could take your 51 year number and multiple by roughly 3 to get roughly 150 years.

    Maybe that is the best answer? 150 years. Still an interesting disparity between one’s instinctive reaction and statistical reality.

  6. Reminds me of the boy who wanted to go to the zoo. His father told him: If they zoo wants you so badly, they will come and get you.

  7. It is strange when my blog worlds collide. You are touching on Free Range parenting, something I believe strongly in. In America our culture of fear makes it difficult (often impossible) to practice. There are people who have been charged with child neglect for leaving their kids in the car for five minutes to grab the dry cleaning.

    This woman is the leading proponent of the movement:

    She always makes the statistical point that we live in safer times than we ever have.

  8. American paranoia and general detachment from reality would be comical if they didn’t result in so much costly, time-consuming and utterly disastrous social policy. Such fantastical thinking is a luxury of the wealthy and powerful, though; as the U.S. continues to decline in both regards, our fellow citizens will have to discard Hollywood make-believe for a more pragmatic worldview.

  9. This is all going to change when Google Glasses become Google Buttons and Google earrings and all have 4G access that uploads the video in real time. Can you imagine how that is soon going to change the concepts of privacy and law enforcement?

  10. There are multiple fears: the natural, instinctive fear of losing your child; the fear of a non-familiar place; the fear of being judged or punished for losing your child.

    The last is serious: there’s a truthiness about today that children must never be let out of your sight, and free range parenting is somehow neglectful and wrong. Shame.

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