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. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/MC19.pdf 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?