The boogeyman in the green car

By James Alan Fox, 7/21/2002

BEFORE A SUSPECT was taken into custody on Friday, the word from the Orange County Sheriff's Department was that the boogeyman was a middle-aged Hispanic, who trolled the suburban neighborhoods of Southern California in a green car looking for young children.

Sheriff Michael Carona, making the rounds on the morning network programs and cable news shows, said in no uncertain terms that the man who abducted, raped, and murdered pretty 5-year-old Samantha Runnion would strike again. Without a shred of evidence of similar abductions linked to this case, the sheriff boldly stated that a serial killer was on the loose, a warning that scared many parents literally into locking their children in the house.

The panic appears not to be limited to the Orange County area. Thanks to the ubiquity of television and the speed of satellite transmission, a mother's grief was heartfelt in living rooms coast-to-coast, making it seem like the threat of abduction was lurking at everyone's door.

Based on all available data, however, this kind of event is extremely rare. Each year in the United States, for example, about 800 children under the age of 13 are slain, but most by family members or friends. No more than 100 are killed each year by strangers.

Furthermore, there is no particular trend over the past quarter century. The only apparent increase is in the amount of media coverage devoted to the topic. The Runnion tragedy is, of course, particularly newsworthy because it coincidently follows on the heels of Elizabeth Smart's disappearance in Salt Lake City and Danielle van Dam's slaying in San Diego.

Eager to jump on the latest and scariest trend, the news media - especially the cable news channels which survive on fast breaking stories, have virtually declared this the newest epidemic. Last summer it was shark attacks, despite the lack of statistical support showing any increase. But at least we didn't see any marine specialist holding a news conference to announce that a serial shark was on the loose.

On Fox television, Bill O'Reilly cited a statistic that 100,000 children are abducted each year by strangers. Hurriedly doing the math, he miscalculated there to be more than 30 such kidnappings a day. Actually, the mathematically correct calculation would place the daily count at about 300 children, the host being off by an O'Reilly Factor of 10.

If it were indeed the case that 100,000 children annually fall victim to stranger abduction, we would all likely be personally familiar with at least one such unfortunate child. Among a national population of 50 million youngsters under the age of 13, this prevalence of stranger abduction would translate to one out of every 500 children. At this rate, an average size grade school would endure one stranger abduction each year.

I really must live in a safe community. Over the many years that my three children attended grade school, they never had a schoolmate nabbed by a stranger.

Amidst the tremendous media hype and widespread public hysteria, some sober perspective on the scope of the child abduction problem is surely needed. The most reliable and trustworthy estimates of children abductions are in the hundreds, not hundred-thousands. Child Find, for example, estimates that after removing parent abductions in custody battles (the most common form) as well as attempted kidnappings, fewer than 600 children are abducted by strangers each year. Most of these youngsters are eventually found alive. The less fortunate victims slain by their abductors number about 50 per year.

The thought of your child being kidnapped, raped, and murdered may be horrible, but in statistical terms it is hardly one of the greatest perils that children face on a daily basis - even if and when a serial predator is operating in the neighborhood. Consider these fact s:

A child is more likely to be killed in a fall off a bicycle than by being grabbed off the bike by a rapist/murderer. Still, parents are more apt to keep their children at home in ''protective custody'' than to enforce the use of the helmets.

More children are killed each year by playing with their parents' loaded gun. Yet, parents are more apt these days to lock up their children for safekeeping than their firearms.

With 50 million children in the United States under the age of 13, the likelihood of any one ending up like Samantha Runnion is literally 1 in a million.

For Samantha's family, of course, it matters not that her case is statistically exceptional. But for the rest of us it matters a lot. It is critical that we not pass along our own paranoia to our kids. For their well-being, we should avoid making them prisoners of fear, constantly looking out for the boogeyman in the green car.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

This story ran on page D7 of the Boston Globe on 7/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.