I grew up in the era when parents were just starting to panic about child abductions. Specifically, the Johnny Gosch case in the early 1980s was unfolding just a 30-minute drive from where I lived at the time.
Gosch was a 12-year-old boy who was abducted during his early-morning paper route, and it was all over the local and national news. The case still remains unsolved, though Gosch’s mother believes he was taken as part of a child sex-abuse/mind-control ring, and claims she was visited by her missing son in 1997, when he would have been 27 years old. (If Gosch is still alive, he will be 43 years old on November 12.)
At the same time that child abduction was becoming a hot topic, so too was child molestation, including the McMartin preschool case and other preschool abuse cases. I remember my mom asking me on several occasions if I’d ever been abused by any of the teachers at my daycare (I was not, that I know of).
But in spite of all this, my mom didn’t know where I was half the time. I roamed the student housing complex where we lived with my gang of friends. Sometimes we would just roll down this really steep hill on our sides, and then run around and climb trees. Sometimes we’d walk up the way a bit and play “the mythology game” (like hide and seek, except one person is Medusa, and if she finds you, you turn to stone -- I was a weird kid, yes).
We played in the parking lot full of cars. We dared each other to walk into cement garbage bin enclosure and smell the stink. There was a great playground way down the hill and across the street, definitely out of sight and yelling-distance range for my mom. We would play down there, and sometimes the horses owned by the college’s veterinary medicine department would come to the fence and I would let them nuzzle the palm of my hand.
If we were bored, we’d walk past the playground and onto a bike path that went into a wooded area with a little stream. We’d stop there and poke the moss pooling around the rocks with long sticks. I sometimes took that same path, by myself or with a friend, to get to an indoor pool where I took swimming lessons.
My mom says she remembers sending me off to the bus stop on my own when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember this, but I’m sure she did, because that’s just what parents did back then. I remember staying in the car while she went into the store on several occasions.
And that’s just the way things were: Parents sent their kids outside to play, and expected not to see them back home until dinner.
But that is not the way things are now, at least not for me. While I may have been free to roam my neighborhood at seven or eight, I do not let my son out of my sight. He is allowed to play in our backyard alone, or in our neighbor’s backyard (with the neighbor kid), and that is it. No front-yard playing unless I’m out there with him, and definitely no unattended bike rides around the neighborhood. It makes me sad that he does not have that experience of freedom and rebelliousness that was so thrilling for me when I was a kid. But keeping a close eye on him is necessary to making me feel like I'm keeping him as safe as I can.
We live in the Los Angeles area, that beautiful, sprawling network of neighborhoods connected by concrete that some people refuse to call an actual city, claiming that it lacks a sense of community. And this, maybe, is true of some areas in LA.
We are fortunate enough to live in Glendale, which has its own fire and police departments, its own city government, and a tight-knit Armenian community. All of this gives us a bit more of a “local” feeling, even though it is difficult to tell where Glendale begins and ends within the sprawl of the Greater Los Angeles area.
We’ve managed to cultivate relationships with some of our neighbors -- the other tenants on our property, the couple in the house next door, the manager of the apartment building across the street, one of the condo owners on the other side of us. I see the same people walk by my front door every day, on their way to the store or out walking their dogs and/or toddlers. It feels familiar and safe, at least within the immediate stretch of our block. We are very lucky to live in what you could call a “family-friendly” neighborhood.
But I still only let Oliver play in the backyard, never the front. And leaving our property is strictly forbidden. When we are at the park, my eyes are on him at all times. He is growing up fast, but he is still light enough that someone could pick him up and run with him, no matter how much he kicks and screams. This may be a completely baseless fear, I realize that.
When we were visiting some family in Iowa this past summer, I was shocked to discover that my stepbrother and his wife let my six-year-old niece run around their neighborhood unattended.
They live in a sparkling new housing development, and, like I did when I was that age, my niece is part of a roving band of kids who run around and climb things and get into trouble. There is a half-constructed house next to them that the kids climb all over and into (I ask you, who wouldn’t want to climb into an uninhabited basement and poke around?), one of the kids down the street has a huge trampoline in the backyard, and sometimes my stepbrother and sister-in-law have no idea where their daughter is. But they know all their neighbors, and they all take care of each other’s children.
And perhaps it’s an issue of where you live. It’s comforting to know that in some places, people still look out for other people’s children. If you see a kid doing something they’re not supposed to, you say something. That whole “It takes a village” thing seems to apply in places like my hometown, in a way that it does not here in Glendale, California, despite the sense of community that exists.
In larger metropolitan areas, people tend to mind their own business, whether that business is a screaming child or an elderly woman who is having trouble crossing the street before the light changes. There is a sense of autonomy in a large city that can be at once liberating and sort of frightening. It certainly felt liberating to me before I had a child. But now that I am a parent, it scares the crap out of me.
Because, really, if my son was a couple of blocks away and someone tried to take him, I cannot say with confidence that anyone would notice.
But I can’t really blame “life in the big city,” either. Just weeks after we left Iowa, two little girls were abducted near their home. Following that was an attempted abduction in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, a “safe” place.
Bad things can happen anywhere.
In our age of instant information, it is hard to tell if the world is becoming a scarier place, or if we’re just experiencing an increase in the accessibility to bad news. We no longer hear or read a curated version of the news -- we now have 24-hour access to every bit of badness going on in every city, state and country. It’s no wonder the world can feel like such a frightening place sometimes.
I have spent the last several years working on not letting fear control my decisions. I had to let go of the fear of the unknown when I divorced my son’s father and again when I quit my day job. It was incredibly liberating to draw a line in the sand and say, “I trust myself. I’m going to be just fine.”
But fear related to my child’s safety has nothing to do with trusting myself and everything to do with trusting other people. And, frankly, what I see around me does not always inspire much confidence in other people. So no, I do not trust other people to not do bad things. I do not trust other people (with the exception of the handful of neighbors I know well) to keep my son safe.
Is my fear completely unfounded? According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, only 115 out of about 800,000 children reported missing each year are abducted by a stranger.
When I look at this statistic, I know that the odds of my child ever being abducted are very low. But my parenting is not rooted in an intellectual understanding of statistical probabilities -- it is rooted in my gut. And my gut is telling me to protect my son in any way I can, even if it means that he only gets to play in our backyard.