One morning, as I casually sipped my coffee and thumb-scrolled through my Facebook feed, I came across a terrifying headline describing one mom's horrific experience of nearly losing her children to a child trafficker in Ikea.
Like thousands of other moms across America, I clicked through to read the story because, hey – I'm a mom, and I go to Ikea.
My heart raced as the mom described being followed through the store, shadowed by two men who clearly were not there to buy reasonably priced furniture in a box. I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the moment when they'd pounce. Who would the heroic rescuer turn out to be, I wondered? Security? A passerby?
But there was no hero. Suddenly, the story just ended.
Huh? Wait a minute, I thought. What happened to the part where her children almost got kidnapped and sold into child sex trafficking? Did I miss something?
It turns out, I did not. What Diandra Toyos described in her viral Facebook post was her feeling that something just wasn't right. She did what any mom would do in her position; she protected her kids.
When she posted about it on social media, I'm sure she had no idea she was about to ignite a firestorm. In the weeks that followed, her story was covered by nearly every national news organization and was viewed and shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times. (It has since been removed.)
While some worried readers frantically fanned the flames, demanding that we all be more vigilant in a society where sex trafficking is rapidly expanding, others called the mom a fear-monger, lambasting her for a misinformed and sensationalistic representation of an experience that ultimately just felt uncomfortable.
Though no one can say with any certainty whether her fears were founded, one thing is for sure: Parenting is scary. But we would do better to educate ourselves about risk before allowing the fear to rule our parenting.
We are parenting in a time of paranoia. We have somehow gotten to a place in American news and social media where a creepy feeling constitutes a near-miss, and a national news story. Fear sells, and unfortunately, we live under a cloud of it. It seems that no one is safe – especially a mom with three kids, who goes to Ikea.
But are our fears justified? I decided to go straight to the source and review the statistics about abductions and sex trafficking in our current culture. What I found was more reassuring than the evening news would lead you to believe.
The current pattern of crime in the U.S.
First of all, crime rates are down. Pew Research Center reports that violent crimes are down at least 50 percent since the early 90s. While one survey showed a slight uptick between 2014 and 2015, the fact remains that, overall, violent crime in the U.S. has declined sharply over the past three decades. Property crime has also fallen roughly 50 percent in the same time period.
Despite the statistics, though, public perception of crime is on the rise. A Gallup poll conducted regularly dating back to 1972 reveals that each year, Americans believe that crime has increased in their area. Similarly, in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 57 percent of registered voters said that crime had gotten worse since 2008.
What is causing the perceived increase in crime rates despite the consistent and sharp decline in actual crime? The constant barrage of crime-related news paired with the power of social media has played no small part. But are our children actually safer than they were 30 years ago?
The current statistics on kidnappings and abductions by strangers
A 2016 issue of the Juvenile Justice Bulletin compared data related to stranger abductions from 1997 to 2011 and found that, overall, rates have remained fairly steady, but low.
Each year, there are approximately 105 stranger abductions reported nationally. With an estimated 74 million children in America, that makes the odds of any single child being abducted by a stranger about 0.00014 percent, or one in 700,000.
Of the children who are abducted by strangers, 92 percent are recovered alive. This represents a 40 percent increase in recovery rate since 1997, mostly attributed to increases in cell phones and mobile tracking technology.
Of the victims, most are girls aged 12 to 17, and in nearly two-thirds of all cases, the child went with the abductor willingly, usually having been tricked into complacency. Specifically, only 36 percent of abductions happened in public spaces, and only 16 percent were related to sex trafficking. That makes the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger for the purposes of sex trafficking roughly one in four million.
The current state of human trafficking in the U.S.
It is true that prosecutions related to human trafficking are on the rise in the United States, but only slightly. The 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report produced by the U.S. Department of State reports that in 2015, there were 257 federal human trafficking prosecutions, charging 377 defendants. This represents a slight increase from the 208 prosecutions charging 335 defendants in 2014.
It's important to realize, though, that prosecuting more human traffickers does not necessarily mean there are more human traffickers. It could also be an indication of more effective investigations and arrests.
Regardless, for every human trafficker prosecuted, dozens of others no doubt escape unscathed. The human trafficking activist group Polaris estimated over 8,000 cases of human trafficking in 2016, representing a 35 percent increase over the year before.
Let's consider how human traffickers generally operate. Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco has served as a human trafficking expert witness in multiple criminal cases and has trained federal law enforcement agents on geographic patterns of human trafficking prevalence. She recently spoke with CBS News, warning that “These types of [social media posts] perpetuate misinformation, which leads to people being misinformed about how human trafficking happens in real life."
She goes on to relate that human traffickers generally build relationships with young people over prolonged periods, sometimes as long as a year, before luring them away from their families. They also generally target minors who are particularly vulnerable, such as runaways or homeless youth.
“It's not happening overnight or as some people have described 'in a matter of seconds or minutes,'" she adds. In fact, in her years interviewing over 2,000 victims of human trafficking, she has never heard of a single case in which a child was simply snatched suddenly from a crowded public space.
Of course, statistics don't matter if your child is the one in four million. So, how can we safeguard our children against abduction and sex trafficking? Here are some tips for getting started:
Monitor your child's social media use
Many victims are groomed online before they are actually abducted. Set parental controls, know what apps your child has access to, and regularly check their online communications.
Make a family rule against secrets
Teach your kids that it's not okay for older people to ask them to keep a secret. Most sexual predators count on the fact that a young child will not tell on them. Does this mean that we have to tell grandma what we bought her for her birthday? Of course not. Teach that surprises are okay, but secrets are not.
Teach young children about “tricky people"
Stranger danger is now commonly considered an outdated technique. More often than not, strangers are not a danger, and in some cases, a child may need to ask a stranger for help.
Instead teach about “tricky people," adults who ask for help from children. Teach children that there's no reason an adult should ask a child for help. Of course, there are exceptions, like holding a door for an elderly person or helping mommy rake the leaves. But in general, an adult should not ask for help from a child.
Trust your gut, and teach your children to do the same
Diandra Toyos will never know if her children were being targeted in Ikea, but she went with her gut and protected them. You can never fault a parent for erring on the side of safety.
Teach your children that if something feels wrong or makes them uncomfortable, they should leave the situation immediately and tell a trusted grown-up right away.
Let your kids know when it's okay to be rude
We spend so much time teaching our children to be polite and respectful, but that's the last thing we want them to be if someone is abusing or abducting them. Make sure your children know to do whatever is necessary to get away from someone who tries to touch them inappropriately or force them to go someplace against their will. Teach them that, if that ever happens, it's okay to be aggressive and make a scene.
It's hard not to ruminate over the worst case scenarios we envision around us. There's a fine line between protecting our kids and living in fear. By knowing the facts and taking reasonable steps to safeguard against the unlikely nightmares we imagine, we can keep ourselves grounded in reality, where we all have the same goal: to raise kids who are healthy, safe, and strong.