The real monsters are not under the bed

There really arenít monsters hiding under the bed. More likely, they are living in them. When death strikes a child, it is only rarely visited upon them by a stranger.
    And yet parents strive to enclose their kids in a "Bubble Boy" lifestyle.
    My friend Keith, who lives in West Hartford and is the father of three, said to me the other day that perhaps kids shouldnít play in the street the way we used to because they "might get abducted." He said this in spite of having lived in West Hartford his whole life, a town where, according to police Captain William Ericson, there hasnít been a non-family abduction in his 26 years on the force.
    The media likes death to be sexy and sensational, and so one might think that random murder and abduction are among the leading causes of childhood death. They are not. Not even close.
    Accidents and illnesses kill children. Family members and acquaintances occasionally do. Strangers very rarely do.
    In 1998, there were 70 million children under the age of 18 in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 15,960 of them died. That is .0002%. Or 2% of 1%.
    More than half of these (8,450) were the result of accidents, most of them involving an automobile. When a child dies in an accident caused by a drunk driver, two-thirds of the time that driver is in the same car with them.
    4,565 children died from disease or illness.
    Children do get murdered, though not very often by strangers. In 1998, there 1,783 homicide victims ages 17 and under. 85% of them were killed by a family member or acquaintance. 47% were black. Girls were twice as likely to be killed by a family member as boys.
    One-quarter of all juvenile homicides occurred in just five of the nationís more than 3,000 counties Ė those which contain Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit.
    And it is worthwhile to note that despite all the publicity about places like Littleton, Colorado, the juvenile homicide rate is down almost 40% in the last six years.
    There were 1,162 suicides.
    This is not too say that vigilance and caution are not advisable. Detective Theresa Freeman of the Connecticut State Police, who monitors crimes against children, said that she thinks awareness is one of the reasons that is little violence committed by strangers against children in Connecticut. "We donít have half the problems Iíve seen in other states," she said.
    On the other hand, Freeman says the incidence of child abuse by family members or acquaintances (usually the boyfriend of a parent) happens frequently in Connecticut. She didnít have an explanation for this, although she did acknowledge that it was a possibility that the Department of Children and Families might not be moving swiftly enough to remove children from threatening home environments.
    The numbers for juvenile kidnaping, or abduction, also show that the most likely perpetrator is a family member or acquaintance. 75% of all abductions of children under six are by a family member.
    Sexual assaults against children are committed by strangers in about 5% of the cases.
    There is probably no more primal instinct than the one which leads us to protect our children from harm. But sometimes this instinct is applied in combination with intellect, which is far more likely to fall prey to misinformation and resulting misjudgment.
    The American childhood experience is much different than it was a generation or two ago, especially in suburbia. Homes are often islands and neighbors are not always acquainted. Activities are more structured and scheduled Ė "playdate" is a word which would be unknown to our parents. Many of these changes are a direct result of parents seeking a safer life for their children.
    But perhaps we would do well to remember from time to time, that closing the blinds on the outside world is a false comfort, for without the light of day no identifying shadow will be cast by those things which we should truly fear.  The real monsters come out in the darkness of ignorance.

August 15, 2000