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Vincent Iannelli, M.D.

Child Abduction Tragedy - What Happened to Stranger-Danger?

By July 14, 2011

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The abduction and killing of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old boy from Brooklyn, New York, hit a little close to home for me.

In addition to having children that are the same age, I actually grew up very close to the neighborhood where Leiby went to school. And I probably started to walk 5 or 6 blocks to my bus stop when I was about 8 or 9-years-old, and my older brother couldn't walk with me anymore because he was going to a different school.

When a child is murdered like this, it brings up the old debate of stranger-danger, at what age kids should be allowed more freedom to do things on their own, and if some parents go too far because of fear, and never let their kids outside.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their report on "The Pediatrician's Role in the Prevention of Missing Children," states that efforts to prevent missing children need to balance "safeguarding children while avoiding generating fear." The report also states that "because abductions are rarely conducted by strangers, even in nonfamily abductions, teaching children not to talk to strangers frightens them without any proven benefit."

Can you talk to kids about strangers without frightening them? We talk to kids about wearing a helmet when they ride their bike and it doesn't keep them from getting on a bicycle.

The AAP also advises that pediatricians "help parents and children put the risk of becoming missing in perspective."

That's definitely important. To make a decision about letting your kids do things on your own, you should have good information. While you don't want to create fear or overstate any risks of stranger abductions, that does also mean not minimizing the danger.

For example, Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, and an advocate for parents being less overprotective of their kids, yesterday stated that "a stranger abduction like Leiby's is rarer than death-by-lightning."

Is that true? Rarer than death-by-lightning?

In 1999, a study found that there were 115 stereotypical kidnappings, including 81 kidnappings that were by a total stranger and 34 that were by a slight acquaintance. Forty percent of the kids in those stereotypical kidnappings were killed. Statistics often cited since then report that about 50 children each year are murdered in stranger abductions each year.

Last year, six children who were less than 18-years-old were struck and killed by lightning. There were 29 total lightning strike fatalities in the United States. Both numbers are much less than the number of kids who are abducted and killed by strangers each year.

A report in the Chicago Tribune last year found that there were over 400 attempted stranger abductions of children from 2008 to 2010. While that isn't something to panic over, they certainly aren't rare events.

In her book, Lenore Skenazy also uses the statistic that there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of your child being abducted and murdered by a stranger.

I'm guessing that statistic isn't really true either. There are 74 million children living in the United States, but they don't all have the same risk of getting abducted and murdered by a stranger. Saying that there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance of being abducted and murdered by a stranger because there are 50 incidents among 74 million children is like calculating a child's risk of getting hurt playing football and using all children, and not just those who play football in your calculation. Not all children are at the same risk of being abducted by strangers.

Is 50 murders a year rare? Maybe. But to put in perspective - fewer children between the ages of 1 and 18 years die each year from meningitis.

All of this doesn't mean that you have to overestimate the risk and lock your kids in your house. But it also doesn't mean that you have to go to the other extreme and let people label you a helicopter parent because you want to watch your kids play at the park or don't feel comfortable simply dropping them off at the mall.

Like most things, decisions on when to let your kids play outside alone, walk to the store, or stay home alone, should be made on an individual basis. Trust your instincts and let your kids have as much freedom as you think they are ready for.

As stranger-danger has gotten out of favor, mostly because kids aren't very good at recognizing who strangers are, it is important to teach kids about personal safety. A well thought out safety plan in situations when you might get separated from your kids seems smarter than simply ditching stranger-danger warnings. Such a plan would making sure your kids have some kind of ID, with information on how to contact you, having a current picture of your child, a designated meeting place if you become separated, and a discussion of safe places that your kids might go if they becomes lost or feel threatened, whether it is by a stranger or someone they know.

It isn't very common for kids to get killed by lightning, but that doesn't mean that we encourage them to go outside and play during thunderstorms...

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July 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm
(1) jess says:

very well said.
Don’t let other people’s parenting ideas keep you from doing what you think you need to do to keep your family safe. I probably hover more than I need to, but we need to give our kids something to complain about in therapy, right?

July 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm
(2) Laura says:

Excellent, Vince.

July 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm
(3) david parkin says:

Retired Police Superintendent – “Don’t talk to strangers” has done far more harm than good. The earlier “don’t go with strangers” had a more positive effect.
Denying children the opportunity to be sociable is damaging to society. We should not be warping childrens’minds.

July 18, 2011 at 10:08 am
(4) Donna Silbert, PhD, Clinical Psychologist says:

Telling kids not to talk to strangers only causes confusion since kids are unable to consistently define “stranger”. Though it may be politically incorrect, research shows that the best advice to give kids if they need help is to approach A WOMAN WITH A YOUNG CHILD … OR A WOMAN, ALONE. Statistically, women are simply much less likely to be murderers and/or sexual predators. This is not fool-proof. It is simply a method of stacking your child’s odds. Tell everyone you know; this is something children can understand and will remember if quizzed every so often.

July 21, 2011 at 5:46 pm
(5) ThomasT says:

While your specific points about Ms. Skenazy’s statistics may be correct (and in the specific instance of the lightning strike comparison, probably are), you’re presenting these as if they’re some sort of refutation of her overall point, which is that abduction-by-stranger is incredibly rare, and parents who act as if it’s not do more harm to their children than good, by passing on irrational fear, and preventing kids from learning experientially how to comport themselves in the world.

Your actual suggestions for how to keep your children safe are right in line with what Skenazy and other free-range advocates suggest, with one exception – you encourage parents to “trust their instincts,” rather than encouraging them to take a rational look at their “instincts” to see if they’re reasonable. If a patient’s parent’s “instinct” was that the hullaballoo around second-hand smoke was bogus, because he’d grown up in a house with two pack-a-day smokers and never felt any ill-effect, would you let that lie? How about a gun owner who is absolutely sure that his toddler will never find the loaded handgun in the bedside table, kept there for emergency?

July 23, 2011 at 9:50 am
(6) Vincent Iannelli, MD says:

“How about a gun owner who is absolutely sure that his toddler will never find the loaded handgun in the bedside table, kept there for emergency?”

It is kind of ironic, or maybe sad, that you bring up guns. Members of the NRA bring up the exact same argument that accidental shootings from unsecured guns are rare, because there are only about 120 to 150 child deaths a year, so we shouldn’t be concerned about it.

“Encouraging them to take a rational look at their “instincts” to see if they’re reasonable.”

I don’t recall seeing this, except to tell parents that if their instincts tell them their child is not ready to go outside alone, then their instincts are wrong.

Also, just because I don’t want to drop my younger kids off at the mall by themselves or because I want to stay at their baseball practice doesn’t mean I’m wracked with fear.

And I don’t buy into the fact that the average kid who isn’t raised as a ‘free-ranger’ is harmed in any way. Sure, it isn’t good if you are always at your child’s side and make every decision as he grows up, but that is an extreme and not what most parents do. The reaction to it, when it does occur, doesn’t have to be another extreme either.

January 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm
(7) Amy says:

I agree that parents should educate their children and I was raised in a house that everyone thought was altogether too strict. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad and I would probably be much the same way now. Let’s be real…it can be scary out there.

However, the old stranger danger campaigns actually led to an increased rate of kidnapping in American because it taught children that they only needed to watch out for people they didn’t know at all. The reality is that many kidnappings are perpetrated by people that the child knows. If we are teaching them to only be wary of people they don’t know, then there’s nothing wrong with them leaving with the people they do know. I think we need to teach our kids to be smart….if it’s not your routine, don’t do it. If mom and dad didn’t tell you to go home with someone else, then don’t…run to your teacher or somewhere safe. And of course.,..never go with someone you don’t know.

August 17, 2012 at 2:58 am
(8) Teri says:

The article is informative and can put things into perspective. However, being a mother of a murdered (12 year old) child…. I’m not willing to play roulette. 50 children a year is FIFTY babies a year. Don’t think it won’t happen because it does. It’s not worth the risk. That number should scare all of us because it’s 50 families forever broken. The ripple effect never ends. I agree one should teach “stranger danger” without paralyzing a child emotionally…. But one of those 50 could be your child, like my child. I think articles like these should only be written by someone who honestly knows what it feels like to have your child taken like this. Then maybe the “50″ wouldn’t be MINIMIZED.

August 25, 2012 at 10:09 pm
(9) Vincent Iannelli, MD says:

Then maybe the “50″ wouldn’t be MINIMIZED.

I’m sorry for your loss, and that’s exactly the point I was trying to make.

Too many people think that parents are being overprotective if they think or talk about strangers or abductions. A four or five year old isn’t missing out on anything if you don’t let them play outside alone though. And kids are not playing outside because they like playing video games and they are into more organized activities, not because they are afraid of strangers or because parents are overprotective.

October 12, 2012 at 11:33 pm
(10) Cara says:

Teri, I’m so sorry for your devastating loss. Your words about the loss of 50 children being minimized are very poignant. Vincent, thanks very much for this article. A little girl (Jessica Ridgeway) was recently abducted and murdered. I just read Lenore Skenazy’s blog post about Jessica and was a little shocked by the militant, judgmental attitude of most of the people commenting. Your article, on the other hand, is very even handed and non-judgmental. Thanks again.

October 13, 2012 at 12:32 am
(11) Warren says:

Stranger Danger is a crock. It under estimates the capabilities of children, and has them looking in all the wrong places.
When we talk about keeping our kids safe, there is really only one way to do it. Give them the knowledge and the tools to handle themselves in the face of adversity.
Sheltering, hovering, helicoptoring and overprotecting may keep them out of harms way as children, but what type of adults are we creating. Never knowing how to or having to handle things as kids, they will tend to be meek, shy, fearful and withdrawn as adults. These are traits that criminals look for when targeting victims.
So as much as we wish to keep our little darlings under a protective dome, we have to let them grow and learn. Childhood is only a small part of their life. They need to be ready to be adults, as adulthood is the majority of there life.

October 18, 2012 at 11:44 am
(12) Vincent Iannelli, MD says:

When we talk about keeping our kids safe, there is really only one way to do it. Give them the knowledge and the tools to handle themselves in the face of adversity.

Talking about strangers is one way to do that. Stranger danger has nothing to do with being overprotective.

The main problem with Stranger Danger is that most parents talk about it too generically and kids don’t understand who a stranger really is.

January 25, 2013 at 10:10 am
(13) KevinM says:


Your points about stranger danger are well stated. However, I think your are selective about the statistics that you use. You have done nothing to refute ThomasT’s assertion that, “…abduction by stranger” is incredibly rare.

Let’s use some real statistics. Here is a link on child mortality from the National Resource Center – http://www.childdeathreview.org/nationalchildmortalitydata.htm.

This study shows that in 2007 approximately 53,000 children died out of a population of 82 million. In other words, in 2007 the odds of a young person dying for any reason was about .06% (53,000 / 82,000,000) x 100. In other words, it is rare.

Now, you will no doubt say that not all deaths apply to the specific “child abduction” demographic. So let’s only concern ourselves with deaths of children from ages 4-12. Not sure what the population numbers are for this demographic. Even if their are only 1 million children in this age range (which I think is very low) the odds of a child in that range being killed in a stranger abduction is only 0.005%. (50/1,000,000) x 100. Again this seems rare to me.

This does not address whether child abductions are more common today than in the “good old days”. Like you, I walked 5-7 blocks to school in kindergarten in the early 1960′s. I keep hearing “it is different now”. Really, what were the numbers for child “stranger abductions” in those days? Without any numbers, we are just speculating. I suspect that children were abducted, sexually assaulted and murded in the good old day too. I suspect it was just as rare then, but “seemed” rarer because there was not as much national news coverage.

Yes, we should protect our kids, but we should remember that the death of any child for any reason is tragic, but also, rare. Your article questions the rarity of death due to stranger-danger, but the numbers don’t seem to support you.

April 26, 2013 at 9:14 pm
(14) Mmwebster says:

The stats you’re quoting include teens, whose claims of “abductions” by strangers are quite often suspect. Ms. Skenazy’s statistics are near the mark if you consider stranger abductions of children under 12. These are extremely rare, making the lighting strike analogy quite apt, yet many children are not allowed to play outdoors or walk to school because of mass hysteria. The FBI studies are quite clear.

July 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm
(15) Veronica says:

Amazing article. I personally don’t Free Range Parent for good reason. Looking back I could have been considered a Free Range Child. I often walked to school in 1st grade, went to the grocery store a mile from my home for my parents many times before age 8 and wandered the neighborhood for hours after school and on the weekend. This wasn’t considered “Free Range” back then, it was the norm.

This was not a plan by our parents to make us better adults, they just had better things to do than sit around and make sure we were safe. If child abduction is rare then my friends and I must have been cursed. I don’t know a single girl (and some boys) that lived in my area that wasn’t almost taken, some had been yanked by the arm by a predator more than once (me included). A couple of the neighborhood girls went missing and never were found. Yes, this would make the moms become more cautious for a short while, but then it was back to the norm.

I do not believe this type of life prepared me or my peers for life in any way. If there was a conflict between the children, we were left to work it out ourselves. This merely means that the more aggressive child wins. See: Lord of the Flies. This makes meek children more meek and aggressive children more aggressive. You were left to deal with everything alone. No guidance from socially experienced adults as how to best resolve tough situations. Those talks were too much of a burden for most parents back then.

August 10, 2013 at 7:05 pm
(16) Missing Kid? says:

Parents: Please for YOUR childrens sake, don’t care what anybody else says. You start teaching your children their vital statistics from birth. It’s never too soon to teach them their name, birthdate, mommy and daddys name, phone number, address. Turn the lessons into music. Turn the lessons into a game. Turn the lessons into a funtime activity. Literally overteach your children so that the information will be ingrained in their memory, their brain so that even if they are abducted as an infant/toddler, as they get older and begin to see that they do not belong, they’ll remember the information and tell someone who hopefully will listen to them.

I wish I could find my parents, but, I am considered “too old” to help by the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children (who has a 1984 cutoff date for assistance) and the Prince William County, Virginia Police (who told me to not “rock the boat”). I do not know who my real parents are that I was abducted from when I was a baby. I wish I had a memory in my heart of a woman singing my name, birthdate, address, phone number, her and dads name,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,but, I don’t, and I and my real parents are excluded from having any help from the resources offered to children abducted after 1984.

I do not want to see your children go through an abduction. They say children remember songs or other instances from their very early childhood………bits and pieces of their memories………a memory in their heart.

Please ! I hope your children are never abducted, but, unfortunately we are not living in a weirdo free world. PLEASE: for your childrens sake and your sake, start overteaching their vital statistics to them from birth.

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