Children's Safety Concerns Revived in Wake of Patz Search

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


The recent search for the missing school boy Etan Patz, who disappeared 33 years ago after walking alone to the bus stop, has reignited an age old debate: at what age should parents give their kids more freedom?

“I'm one of the ones who's a little over protective in sense; I will drive my kids to high school if I have to” said Mario Rodriguez as he waited to pick up his 10-year-old son from P.S. 39 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Even though they live a block and a half away, he said he’s still too worried to let his 5th grader walk home alone.

"I often feel that being in the city my kids don't get enough freedom," admitted Pheobe Lichty, the mother of two girls, ages 5 and 7. She said that even though she can be over-protective at times, she's terrified after hearing news about child abductions, which make parents “cling a little closer.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hundreds of thousands of children are reporting missing each year, but only about 115 are victims of a “stereotypical” kidnapping, which includes a child being kidnapped by someone they do not know.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said there are about 12 cases similar to Etan Patz currently open. In general, he said, the city is a much safer place, with crime rates are at historic lows.

In spite of these statistics, Lenore Skenazy, blogger and author of the book Free Range Kids, said many parents still can't let go of their fear.

"Either you let it rule your life and end up kidnapping your child in your own in way — keeping them indoors, constantly hovered over, no childhood and no freedom. Or you have to accept the fact that the world is a fallen place and there is some danger."

Skenazy said she discovered firsthand the high level of parental vigilance out there after she received hate mail for allowing her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself.

"How would you feel if he had been murdered or if he never came home," she said people asked her.

"What’s strange to me," Skenazy said, "is that's the question we’re supposed to ask first — when we think of letting our children do anything. We are supposed to immediately go to a story like Eton's instead of a story like our own growing up."

Many factors affect a parent’s decision to give their kids more freedom.

Melissa Williams, a Brooklyn mother of two, said she decided to allow her older daughter Caroline some unsupervised time after some her friends were given more independence.

"I don't know if that was a good enough reason but we also just felt like she was responsible enough,” she explained. “When she turned eight, I also began to run out to the store for 10 minutes or whatever and I just tell her not to pick up the phone in case someone calls and there's not a parent home."

Parents who feel like they need to keep a tight watch on their kids should focus on training them for the next stage of trust, advises author and New York City-based family therapist Meri Wallace. She said teaching children to cross the street or not talk to strangers can help, but the decision to separate is never easy.

"We have to look around and assess situations and talk to other parents and use really good judgment and let our children go slowly," she said.

While parents struggle letting go, their kids often have a clearer idea of how and when that should happen, like 7-year-old Christopher Williams.  He explained he'll be ready some solo flying in three years.

“Because you're old enough to be outside,” he justified. He doesn’t plan to go too far though, “just across the street."


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Comments [9]

Immi from OR

First, I want to clarify I live in a small city. However, I want to add a little different perspective.

My childhood was spent living near a small (less than 3,000 pop) town called Independence which was pretty much the prevailing attitude of parents regarding their kids. I actually lived in a fairly rural neighborhood with no other kids, but by the time I was 7 my best friend and I were allowed to roam quite far from her house in town, which my parents' supported, although mostly with a clear destination ( library, park, town pool). By age 11 (middle school) I could walk the mile into town alone along the shoulder of the highway. Speeding cars and no sidewalks were the only safety concern my parents had.

Now I live in a quiet residential neighborhood in a city of 30,000, and have let my own kids play outside alone along our street or flitting between nearby kids' homes at 6 (with the stipulation they come home when I hollered for them). By 9, anywhere in about a 6 block radius (all residential) was ok. Now that she's 11, my daughter can walk/bike up to 1 1/2 miles away if she has a planned destination. Busy streets without sidewalks are off-limits, though, but only because I'm leery of traffic safety. I also have no problem with her riding the city bus to specific destinations. The big change over my childhood is she carries a cell phone. She has to answer when I call/text and call us when she wants permission to go somewhere besides her planned destination - or face losing that freedom.

All that said, last year we actually had some (unnamed) neighbor call the police complaining that 'a 10 year old was wandering the streets alone' when she was within 3 blocks of home and a cop stopped by to make sure someone was home. He was fine with the situation upon learning she was home with us before dusk and had a cell phone with her). 10 years old is Oregon's threshold for being unsupervised (walking to school excepted), so it was simply a 'courtesy welfare check'. It's pretty sad that someone who obviously knew her age and address couldn't restrain themselves from tying up 911 with such nonsense. It's particular amazing to me that they didn't even bother to find out if someone was home (I was) or if she was checking in by phone (she was) before hitting the panic button. All because she simply walked past their house. Helicopter *neighbors* exist too these days. *Sigh*.

Apr. 30 2012 12:50 PM
Michelle Conklin from Hillsborough, NJ

Raising a child is a wonderful and nerve-racking experience. I have worked in child welfare in NYC, where the general guideline is that children under age 10 should not be left home alone. But the same rule applies to an older child that lacks the maturity to handle the situation.
When I was in first grade, in Brooklyn in the '60s, I walked to school with my friend and her older sister. The "buddy system" can give children a sense of independence, and is safer than walking alone.
I consider my neighborhood safe, but I walk my 1st grader to the bus stop. Not because I'm afraid to let him go alone, but because I want him to know that I care.

Apr. 25 2012 10:54 PM

I, too, am a fan of Lenore Skenazy's "Free Range Kids". I hope it sets the wheels for change in motion. But it will be hard to change a mentality that is 30 years in the making and constantly reinforced by the media frenzy around every child-abduction. It really makes you believe that child-abduction is an imminent threat, when it clearly is not. I grew up in Brooklyn in the down-and-dirty 70s when the crime rate was high, but no one worried about children being abducted. And of course, they never were. I walked to school from first grade on, and have no memory of my mother being around when I played outdoors. There was a freedom to think, daydream, and work out your difficulties with friends on your own. Today, my own children, 5 and 7 years old, are never out of my sight except when in school. I can't help but think of the negative impact this is having on their development. However, recently I lost one of them in our local supermarket (across the street from our home, where we know many employees) and as the minutes passed I went into a complete panic, which I know is irrational but was happening nonetheless.

My point is that I hope this dialog continues, because it will take much more discussion on the media and between parents to get us all to approach our childrens' independence with a more rational stance.

Apr. 25 2012 02:23 PM
Peter from Manhattan

As security expert Bruce Schneier pointed out, you generally don't have to worry about events on the news. By definition, the news covers unusual events. Child abductions newsworthy because they are very rare.

What you have to worry about is the everyday stuff that doesn't make the news, like traffic accidents. I don't worry about kidnappers, who a few and far between. I do worry about lousy drivers, who can be found at every corner.

Apr. 25 2012 12:39 PM
Britta Wedershoven from Morristown

This issue "Children`s safety concerns" directly resonated with me. What I have to say though might not apply to NYC (I know too little about the City) but it is more general.

I´m a mother of four boys, now 5,6,8 and 9 years. We have been in the US for 2,5 years. I have learned a lot in this time and want to say that there are so many great things in this country that I really appreciate.
Learning to be a "good" mom in the American way was one of the more difficult tasks.

After moving over to Morristown, NJ, I was stunned by the protectiveness of the parents here. I had people honking and yelling at me if I had my four kids not close by my side and if my 4-year-old (at that time) was running ahead on the sidewalk and not on my hand.

In Germany most kids are allowed to go to school by themselves at the age of 6 or 7. They also start riding their bikes to school, visiting their friends or taking the bus on their own at that age. In general they can handle the responsibilities that come along with that task pretty well.

Child abduction also happens in Germany from time to time and, yes, you think about it as a German parent, as well, but this was never really an issue for me (since chances are so small, after all).

I really agree with Lenore Skenazy (author of the book "Free Range Kids") that this (over)protectiveness might be more harmful to the kids, their sense of "I´m capable" and learning to take responsibility for themselves.

But I have to be honest: I have adjusted to the American system now. When we went back to Europe during summer vacation last year I was surprised to see so many kids roaming the streets on their own. My kids were very reluctant at first to go to the playground by themselves, but then they got used to it again and came back very happy.

We are moving back to Germany in a couple of months and the idea that my kids will be running around on their own makes me feel uncomfortable - yes, is does. I got used to the pretty convenient idea that my kids are safe and sound either with me or with some other grown-ups.

But I hope I will get over it and I´m willing to give them their freedom back step by step. They will not be as independent as their friends from the start (they have to learn how to cross streets safely again, how to ride their bikes on the roads) but they will eventually become more independent and self-confident again. And I have a sense that they will be more themselves again.

Apr. 25 2012 12:06 PM
Matthew Levey from Manhattan


Etan Patz's disappearance was a tragedy for his family. And it is sad to see their hopes of closure raised and dashed again so publicly.

But the key fact in your story is that the NYPD reports they are tracking 12 cases of child abduction in the city.

Census bureau reports there are about 2 million kids under 18 in the five boroughs.

So there is a 1 in a million chance that your kid is going to be abducted. (1.2 in a million, technically)

FBI stats show that about 85% of child abductions are by the non-custodial spouse in a divorce case.

So for most kids in New York there many far greater risks than getting snatched by a stranger. Yet your story only serves to focus their attention on what is, in essence, a non issue.

It would be fine if this was FOX or WINS. But as listener supporters I think we have higher expectations for the quality of at WNYC.

Apr. 25 2012 09:52 AM
scott from Suffern

I would have liked to hear more experts on this matter to give help hints

Apr. 25 2012 09:13 AM
BrendaTNYC from New York City

Of course children being kidnapped by strangers is rare, but that doesn't make it any less terrifying. In theory it can happen to a child of any age. Teaching children how to protect themselves and more importantly, how to project an aura of confidence, is really the only protection.
While Etan has left a legacy of awareness (for which we are grateful) my heart breaks for his parents and this recent media activity.

Apr. 25 2012 07:04 AM
p from ny

Like addition of survey. Suggestions:
1. the colors of the age groups on all the pie charts should remain constant. So 9-11 would be the same color across all charts. Makes it much easier to read and compare the charts.
2. Clearly indicate the sample size somewhere -- people might not scroll on the pie segments and see that information.

Apr. 25 2012 05:41 AM

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