Lessons from Carlie: Fear of Strangers Drives Us Crazy

Carlie Brucia is gone now, but not forgotten. In two excruciating weeks, she has been transformed from a little girl with a backpack into an icon of the mortal dangers that stalk our children. A surveillance video of her kidnap made her story national news and an object lesson for parents and children everywhere. Her death may toughen the laws in Florida on how repeat criminals are punished.


Such a terrible case reveals one of the most glorious capacities of human nature. As with Columbine, as with the World Trade Center, as with the murder of a single child — out of evil we search desperately for the good. How can this change us for the better? What new law can we enact? How can we make the world safer for our children?


But a powerful danger hides inside all emblematic crimes, and especially those that produce the most expansive coverage. The dramatic and emotional coverage of such kidnaps and murders creates the impression that our children are more vulnerable to predatory strangers than they really are. Fear of strangers drives us crazy.


In its front-page coverage of the Carlie Brucia murder, the St. Petersburg Times included this sidebar inside the paper, under the headline “A rare crime”:

According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 58,200 children in the United States were abducted by nonrelatives in 1999, the most recent data available. In the vast majority of cases, the children were released unharmed. Only 115 abductions were classified as the most dangerous kind, where the child was kept overnight, held for ransom, or killed. In those instances, 69 children were returned safely, and 46 were killed.


The organization’s website offers other relevant statistics. More than 200,000 children were kidnapped in 1999 by their own relatives. A 1997 study issued by the attorney general of the State of Washington reported that “the murder of a child who is abducted … is a rare event. There are estimated to be about 100 such incidents in the United States each year, less than one half of one percent of the murders committed.” Sadly,”74 percent of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of abduction.”


Let’s go back to that 1999 number: 46 children in the United States were kidnapped and murdered that year by strangers. The murder of each child is an incalculable loss, affecting the lives and futures of whole families, schools, and communities. The suffering of loved ones left behind is unimaginable. That must never be forgotten. Yet, as the parent of three daughters, and with respect for any family that has lost a child, I must offer what I hope is not seen as a cruel arithmetic: 46 dead children is fewer than one per state per year.


I state this stark fact on behalf of living children and those who care for them. Stories like the Carlie Brucia kidnap and murder –- magnified now by dramatic video — create the false impression that a primary danger to our children comes from monstrous strangers.


The truth is different. For every child kidnapped and murdered by strangers, there are thousands upon thousands who are snatched, sexually abused, raped, tortured, or murdered by people they know and trust. The true threats to children come not from criminals on parole. They come, instead, from mom and dad, Uncle Albert, older siblings, stepdads and boyfriends, coaches and counselors, even priests, ministers, and rabbis. Stories of such daily predation are undercovered, even as the dramatic exceptions are overexposed.


The National Crime Victimization Survey estimates that 247,730 people were victims of sexual assaults in 2002. Of that number, 44 percent were under the age of 18, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s 109,000 children, sexually assaulted in 2002. Most of them (93 percent) were attacked by someone they knew, a relative or a friend.


Again from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children: “The sexual victimization of children is overwhelming in magnitude yet largely unrecognized and underreported. Statistics show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 or 10 boys are sexually exploited before they reach adulthood, yet less than 35 percent of those child sexual assaults are reported to authorities.”


We journalists often justify our morbidity, and that of our readers and viewers, with slogans such as, “It’s not news that thousands of airplanes landed safely today, only that one crashed.”It is not news that none of the children in Florida was kidnapped by strangers today.


That is true. I would not have argued for any less coverage of the Carlie Brucia case, especially in Sarasota, the city where she was kidnapped and murdered, and now deeply mourned.


I am, instead, arguing in favor of context. And then more context. We parents need journalists to help us understand such events, not just feel them. We need a true assessment of comparative risks. Without this, we may fear the thing that, in reality, poses little true risk, while more common dangers to our children remain invisible.


My argument, I know, may deny the workings of the human heart. No amount of reporting on the relative safety of air travel compared to automobile travel will relieve the primal dread of being locked in metal 30,000 feet in the air. Truth be told, and it bears re-telling, an 11-year-old child in America faces far greater risk of death riding in a car without a seatbelt than from criminals waiting to pounce from the shadows. Every parent can do something about that.

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