Last week, news broke in New York City that an 8 year-old boy had been abducted, then killed and dismembered, after getting lost only blocks away from the place he was to meet his parents that afternoon. His error: he asked the wrong person for directions. That man took advantage of the situation and it ended tragically.
I’d rather not recount all of the details. You can read them for yourself.
As a parent raising children in an urban area, I am already well-aware of the perceived dangers of city life. I know that many of my peers, with children of the same age, think I’m nuts for planting our family here. And I will admit that I sometimes question this decision, as well, counting the cost of all the extra work my husband I and I have to do to keep our family safe and healthy in the city.
But the more time I spend here (we’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine for over three years now and I worked here for the three years before then), the more I am convinced that although there are certain dangers inherent to urban life, many of the dangers inherent to childhood transcend location. No matter where you plant your family, you run the risk of encountering danger. The likelihood of my children being abducted, breaking an arm, drowning in a neighbor’s pool, or getting hit by a car does not significantly decrease the further we are from the city. In fact, depending on where you live, some dangers will increase while others decrease.
On the issue of child abductions, some basic statistics:
- Family members account for the majority of these reported cases (82 percent)
- Non-family abductions account for 12,000 of these reported cases (18 percent)
- Of non-family abductions, 37 percent are by a stranger
In more tangible terms, for every 100 children abducted, 82 are taken by a family member. 18 are taken by a non-family member. And, of those 18, only 6-7 of them are taken by a stranger. Call me crazy, but this says to me that, if your child is ever the victim of abduction, there is 93% chance they are abducted by someone you already know. And, the people you know will be the people you know no matter where you live.
And this is just one example.
As an aside, consider this: as soon as summer hits, the news is littered with tragic stories of children drowning in a neighbor’s pool. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single property within two miles of my home that has a backyard pool. And the two public pools within those two miles are surrounded by high security fences and manned by lifeguards when open for business. So, this childhood danger is actually greatly reduced by living in the city.
The most tragic thing about the boy killed in Brooklyn was not that he was abducted, or that he was killed, or that it happened only blocks away from his intended meeting place. The most tragic thing for me, as a parent, is knowing that his parents did everything right and it happened anyway.
The family lived in an insular Orthodox Jewish community, a community where you’d assume residents were safe and adults were trustworthy. The boy was a month shy of 9 years old and had been begging his parents to allow him to walk home from summer camp alone. This was the first time they’d allowed it and they even walked the route with him, to insure he knew exactly where to go. Somehow, he got lost anyway. And when he stopped to ask for directions, the man he asked happened to be the one person within who knows how many miles who would take advantage of the situation.
I think about my hometown, in the SW suburbs of Chicago. And I think about the twelve or so blocks between my childhood home and my middle school. I think about the millions of times I must have walked that mile when I was eleven years old. And I think about how “safe” it seemed, even though it involved crossing multiple lanes of traffic in a pedestrian un-friendly area.
And then I think about my friend Karen’s home, in Blue Island, IL, which was a far cry from my suburban neighborhood only seven miles away. And I think about riding our bikes around her neighborhood when we were probably no older than ten years old. I think about the first drug deal I ever witnessed. And I think about the stories she told. And I think about the first time I drove through Blue Island as an adult and thought: I can’t believe her parents let us wander around this neighborhood alone!
But now I think I understand.
I think about my neighborhood. I think about the ten blocks between my home and the public library and I think: My son already knows this route and he’s not even three years old. Of course, by the time he’s ten years old, I would assume he’s competent to take this walk alone, even if I wouldn't yet allow it at that point.
The truth is, a good parent knows their child well enough to know when they are ready to “face the world alone.” And the best they can do is trust that they’ve given their child every tool necessary to take care of themselves on that walk down the block, then the walk around the corner, then eventually the walk down to the library. And when something goes wrong, if something goes wrong, chances are that it was nothing the parents could have foreseen and that they did everything right.
This is why it’s tragic when something terrible happens to a child. Regardless of what normal, natural, everyday thing they were doing when the tragedy happened, there is only so much we can do to protect them. And it doesn’t matter where they live. At a certain point, we need to allow them the freedom to take steps out the door alone.
I fear for my son’s life at least a dozen times a day. And my daughter, who is still about three weeks away from being born, is already stressing me out. But I know that, as they grow, the best thing I can do is provide the tools they’ll need to navigate this city without me. And the tools they’ll need here are different than the tools they’d need if we lived in the suburbs, but they are no more or less important. And my neighborhood is no more or less “safe.” It’s just different. The dangers are different. The people are different. The streets and houses and stores are different. And my children will be different because of it. (Heck, that’s part of the reason we’re here.)
The sentiment spoken at the boy’s funeral is perfect for the situation:
“He got lost, he got lost,” he said... “There’s nothing to say, he got lost. God wanted it.”
As a person of faith myself, I can understand what he means. For others, it’s a difficult thing to take in. But the sentiment is something we can all appreciate because it’s true: when something like this happens, there is often a simple explanation for how it happened. In this case, “he got lost.” I’ve been lost before. And you probably have, too. And it happens in the city and in the suburbs and on the hiking trail and in a foreign city. And sometimes you stop to ask the wrong person for directions and you end up more lost than you were before. Or sometimes it ends in tragedy.
Often times, there's simply nothing you should have done differently.
I hope that little boy's parents know that.