How inflated statistics, cultural anxieties and moral crusaders turned a tiny number of missing children into a decade-long political project. Digressions include 1870s parenting, “E.T.” and the lack of parks in Los Angeles. Both co-hosts secretly believe that the popularity of TV movies in the 1980s explains all of America’s social problems.Support the show
Sarah: I think in Oregon we didn't care about missing children. It’s a more libertarian state. Those kids were on their own.
Sarah: Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where we tell you about all the stuff you were afraid of as a teenager and why the grownups were indeed wrong for telling you to fear it, and perhaps also even about other things.
Mike: Never trust grown-ups. Number one.
Sarah: Trust no one.
Mike: I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.
Sarah: I'm Sarah Marshall and I'm a writer for The New Republic and The Believer and Buzzfeed.
Mike: And today we're talking about stranger danger, which has been a mutual obsession of ours separately and now it's finally two great tastes that taste great together.
Sarah: Yeah. And it's something that we've talked on a lot in other episodes.
Mike: Touched on… ding, ding, ding.
Sarah: All right.
Mike: I'm going to keep doing that all episode. I'm sorry.
Sarah: We need an actual bell, but whatever.
Mike: So, we’re sort of tag teaming this episode in that Sarah has been reading up on the origins of this concept and how we got to the idea of stranger danger. And then I looked into what it looked like when it was playing out in the eighties.
Sarah: When you asked me how far back I had gone, I said 1874. And you laughed and then realized I was serious.
Mike: So before we get into all this, I was going to ask, what is the most shocking fact you found?
Sarah: I think the most shocking thing to me were the estimates of missing and murdered children that were publicized during the periods that we're looking at. Because the numbers are just such that if you stopped and thought about it for thirty seconds, you would be like, “Wait a minute. This is weird.”
Sarah: So a 1985 LA Times article, starting to turn the wheel toward debunking says, “Various groups warn us that as many as 1.5 million children disappear each year.” And I compared that to the child population of the United States in the eighties. Every year of the eighties it’s 63 or 62 million kids. So if that's the population of all children, 1.5 million children disappearing each year, that's 2.4% of the population. Which means that if you went to an elementary school that had 200 children in it, four of them by the end of every year would have vanished.
Mike: Oh my God. Every year.
Sarah: Right. So then also by the end of the eighties, presumably we've lost 15 million children across the United States.
Mike: Both of us have spent all week reading how badly inflated these numbers are so it's okay to laugh at this because the spoiler of this episode is that these are not the real numbers. My most shocking statistic is that I came across a survey from 1987 where they were asking people about their various fears and worries related to stranger danger and 37% of the respondents said there was a 50/50 chance of their child being abducted.
Sarah: What?! Because people felt about their child going to elementary school in a middle American suburb the way that the wife of the attorney general of Columbia felt when Escobar was in charge of the country. Every morning you're just like, “Well, I don't know. You know, maybe he'll come home, maybe he won’t.”
Mike: You're like, “Today's going to be the day.” So where should we start, Sarah? I don't get going until 1981. So where should we trace it all back to?
Sarah: So let's go back in time 107 years. So pedal backwards on your bike until it turns into a Penny-farthing. The story starts in 1873, and then there's a case that goes into 1874. But basically in New York City, in this sort of substrate of houses of refuge, there's a little girl named Mary Ellen McCormack, who like many children has been taken in, adopted, by people who are legally her parents, but don't really see her as their child. They see her as someone to do chores and household work for them, and also just abuse her, whip her, and leave significant injuries, don't let her go out into the street, don't speak to her, don't ever socialize with anyone. Like, significant physical as well as psychological abuse. So, there's a caseworker from the Department of Public Charities and Corrections who's alerted to this by a neighbor of the family and goes to visit. Her name is Etta Wheeler, and is horrified by this, but also recognizes that there's no legal recourse available to her because child protection laws don't exist. It's not illegal to abuse a child.
Mike: Holy shit.
Sarah: It's accepted at this time in American courts that a parent owns a child and has complete authority over them, and whatever they decide to do, that's their choice. That's what they get to do. And, like, you know, if you murder your child, there will likely be repercussions. But if you're just physically abusing your child or if there's psychological abuse, there's no legal recognition of that. It's not illegal.
Mike: Right. Because the child is kind of your property, right? It's like your worker, your object, you can do whatever you want. It's between you and your parents, basically.
Sarah: Yeah. And so instead of prosecuting it as child abuse, it's prosecuted as animal abuse.
Mike: No way.
Mike: Like animal cruelty?
Sarah: Because she's a mammal.
Mike: Okay. Sure. Yeah.
Sarah: And so this is taken to court. In April of 1874 it becomes this… you know, it's a calculated publicity grab as well. The social worker and the ASPCA representative who work on this want to bring attention to the fact that there aren't child abuse laws. So this becomes the focal point of a lot of attention. It’s covered in the New York Times in an article called “Inhuman Treatment of a Little Waif.”
Sarah: And it inspires child abuse legislation. It inspires a new approach to protecting children that is more focused on actually attempting to protect the child.
Mike: So what happens with the trial? Is she…
Sarah: She's removed from her parents, and she's adopted.
Mike: But her new parents were even worse. Late 1800 stories always end badly.
Sarah: No, she's adopted by the caseworker.
Mike: Oh! That’s a lovely story.
Sarah: Yeah. And it's the last one you'll hear this whole episode. So savor the flavor. All right. So, this essentially is the discovery of child abuse, but it's still not seen as something that can pervade middle America.
Mike: It takes a while for these things to really sink in.
Sarah: Right. And then, as you talked about in our shaken babies episode, in – what is it? – 1961, a paper is published on what's called at the time, The Battered Child Syndrome.
Mike: I love that paper.
Sarah: Which is that if you batter a child, they will get injured.
Mike: It is bad for them, apparently.
Sarah: It's bad for them. They don't like it. And essentially the claim that the battered child syndrome paper puts forth is that maybe, you know, if a baby comes to the ER with thirty broken bones, it is probable that some of the time their primary caregivers inflicted that injury on purpose.
Mike: Every once in a while, yes.
Sarah: Which is not a radical claim to make.
Mike: But so, what happens after 1962? So these dudes discover child abuse…
Sarah: Yeah. As we periodically do. We see these periods, these fluctuations about who is it who's molesting children? Who would molest a child? Which is something that we have some vague awareness of, you know, at various times, but our impressions of how serious it is change dramatically. In the progressive era, like, the turn of the century to about 1920, we’re like, “It's evil.” We take it very seriously and we pass a lot of quite wacky laws that are meant to stop moral rot and sexuality partly also because people are hysterical about venereal disease during World War I. The troops will get syphilis. They will be busy going syphilis crazy while they're supposed to be sitting in a trench killing teenagers who happened to be born in a different country from them.
So there's a sort of a crackdown on sex that also includes some anti-pervert, anti-sexual, psychopath laws. Then people kind of move on in the thirties and let go of it again until 1936, when Albert Fish, who's a sexually sadistic murderer of children is caught. And this is a big trial that gets a lot of attention. That marks the start of another period of sexual deviant, sexual targeting of children is evil, and these people are predators, and we have to get rid of them.
And then in the sixties up until the seventies, people, again, just stopped caring for a little while and the feeling in the sixties is that sexually abusing a child is something that people do out of a sense of weakness and sexual inadequacy. It's something that people aren't likely to re-offend at and especially if it's a relative, right? Especially if it's your uncle, if it's the kid’s grandpa, you're like, you know, “He had a long and successful career at GM. We've talked to him about it. He's not going to do it again. If we don't make a big deal about it and if we never talk about it again, the kids won't remember.” This is also something that parents were saying at this time.
Mike: No way.
Sarah: Yeah. It's believed that if kids aren't told that what happened to them was bad, they won't figure it out.
Mike: I love that that generation just thinks that not talking about it is a solution to every problem.
Sarah: Every problem.
Mike: If you come back from war, don't talk about it. If you've got homosexual urges, don't talk about it. That was like the penicillin of that generation
Sarah: The dominant belief in American society is that child sexual abuse is not that bad. It hardly ever happens. If it does happen, it's not intrinsically traumatic. It's not something that it's worth tearing the family apart over and what's also important to remember is that in the sixties and seventies, if people are using the phrase sexual abuse, they often aren't referring to things that are happening inside the family because the phrase people use for that is incest.
Mike: Oh, okay.
Sarah: And the way that they treat “father/daughter incest” in the sixties and early seventies is often to try and keep the family together, and offer the dad a deal where he's not going to do any prison time. He's not going to be taken away from the family. He's going to go through therapy. They're going to minimize the conflict and the trauma and keep everyone together.
Sarah: So we start paying attention to child abuse again in the seventies and start talking about child abuse within the family as a culture really for the first time. There's an article in Ms. Magazine in April 1977, which I've read other annotated bibliographies, this is described as one of the first ever mainstream feature articles – maybe the first – on child sexual abuse perpetrated by family members. April 1977.
Mike: Unbelievable. What were freelancers pitching back then?
Sarah: I don't know. Macramé house plant holders? This is the same time that Saturday Night Fever is coming out. Like, it's just crazy to me that there are all of these things that you would assume that any functioning society would be aware of forever and they're more recent than, you know, the first episode of Laverne and Shirley. Also in the spring of 1977, there's a big groundswell of mass media reporting on child pornography.
Mike: Oh good. Always just very moderate temperate coverage.
Sarah: Who can blame poor old middle America? You know, within a few weeks you go from never hearing people talking about child sexual abuse and incestuous family abuse and suddenly it's all anyone on TV is talking about and it also becomes this ratings bonanza. People are pushed to find more and more extreme stories and so there are estimates like, “25,000 teenage boys in LA county alone are part of a gay, pedophile, sex and pornography ring.”
Mike: Right. They're going to need buses to get them all there and back. Like, that's the kind of thing that people would notice.
Sarah: Yeah. Guess who one of the sources of that particular statistic is who also had a big year in 1977?
Mike: Is it gonna be Anita Bryant?
Sarah: It's going to be Anita Bryant.
Mike: Does everything terrible come back to Anita Bryant?
Sarah: A lot of terrible stuff comes back. Can you tell us about who Anita Bryant is?
Mike: Well, I mean, she’s just one of these… wasn't she with Moral Majority at the time? Or Focus on the Family?
Sarah: I don't know what her affiliation was when she started with the Save the Children crusade, but she was one of the bellwethers that showed people like Falwell, who led Moral Majority, that you could actually have a big political victory based on homophobia. You can just go out and do that and this is kind of the start of groups like Moral Majority and evangelical churches and groups capturing American politics.
So, the first Save the Children campaign is in the spring of 1977 also to repeal civil rights legislation in Miami in June of 1977 and then she takes that show on the road.
Mike: It’s sort of like a business model. It's like bubble tea. Like, everyone saw what she did and was like, you can just whip up all this bullshit and everyone will do what you want them to and lose their minds even though you're just essentially this random person, right?
Sarah: So it's the spring of 1977, middle America has just heard about child sexual abuse perpetrated by family members and about child pornography for the first time.
Mike: Man, I really hope there's no high profile news events that bring that debate into the forefront of American life.
Sarah: I don't know. Do you think there could be some?
Mike: Strangely, my story begins in 1979, which, I'm sure you came across this as well, that ‘79 was a big year for kids getting abducted and this news story just crashing onto the front pages. So in 1979, we have the revelations that John Wayne Gacy killed 33 people, kids mostly.
Sarah: Yeah. Young men.
Mike: We have the 28 Atlanta school children murders. That's from 1979 to 1981. Then, we've got the first milk carton child. I’m sure you came across this kid too, Etan Patz, who's six years old and he's living in Soho on Prince Street with his parents. I think it's important, with Etan or with these other kids, that this phenomenon does get super blown out of proportion, but the actual stories at the heart of it are really fucking sad. I mean, the fundamental stories that brought this to the nation's attention… as stories, they became totems, but the actual stories themselves are just awful.
Sarah: Which is why it's that much more horrible that these are then… someone then turns around and makes political hay out of these things.
Mike: Exactly. But the actual story behind this one is on Friday, May 25th, 1979, there's a kid named Etan Patz who walks to school, and he convinces his parents. His parents are like, “You’re only six. You're not ready to walk to school yet.” And he convinces them. He's like, “No, no. I've seen other kids do this. I swear to God, I can do this. It's not going to be a problem.” And he just never comes home.
And so his parents start getting worried pretty fast. They call the cops and what happens is over the next days and weeks, it becomes a much more high profile hunt. So, one of the things that's inspiring about this is that all of the neighbors started knocking on doors and canvassing the neighborhoods and, you know, doing those walks when they hold hands, and they sweep grassy areas. They're doing this in Central Park.
Sarah: I bet there were also some self-satisfied New York media pieces with people being like, “People say New Yorkers don't care about their neighbors, but here in lower Manhattan…”
Mike: That’s the subtext of every story that takes place in New York. People congratulating themselves for living there. So, yes. So later on, there's an essay, this really beautiful essay, that gets written for the New York Times where this woman is talking about how when she was a girl, they all went looking for Etan. So, “We lacquered ourselves to the evening news, pried open windows, called across to neighbors. Stories bounced around like kids in a moonwalk. Someone saw Etan in the lumber store. On the subway. People saw him on light rails everywhere they turned. We slept to bloodhounds at loudspeakers. Has anyone seen this little boy? He is three foot, four inches tall, was carrying a cloth bag with imprints of elephants. I feared slowly passing cars and the solitude of my bedroom. At school, we learned about stranger danger.”
And what we really have here is the first high profile case of people getting scared and people not wanting to let their kids go out. And in some of these articles from the time, you find parents saying in this weekend they're basically like, “I don't let my kids out anymore.” I mean, all it takes is one of these cases to completely change everybody’s behavior overnight.
Sarah: And then if this could happen to someone else's kid, this could happen to anyone's kid, and it could happen to your kid.
Mike: Exactly. And so there's this weird epilogue to the story where it turns out the girl that was walking Aton to school, her boyfriend is a convicted child molester and he's already in jail for other stuff and he eventually confesses to molesting someone on the day that Etan disappeared, but he changes his story and it's a white kid and then it's a black kid and it's an older kid and it's a younger kid. He also says that he let the kid go. He insists on that.
So that kind of trails off and then another couple of years later, another person confesses to the crime. This dude who was eighteen at the time and working at a bodega around the corner from Etan confesses to luring him into the bodega with sodas, and then murdering him in the basement and storing his body in some sort of trunk, but they never find the body. This guy has a personality disorder and he's made up a bunch of other weird stuff and his daughter says he has delusions all the time, and so they did actually convict this guy after a mistrial.
So, that was just last year, actually, but all of that is epilogue. So all we know in 1979 is that this poor kid disappeared. The country is in panic. There's a nationwide search and that kind of puts the issue onto the national agenda. But what really sets it on fire is Adam Walsh. So in 1981, Adam Walsh disappears, and I'm going to spend a bit more time on this because the details are bananas.
Sarah: And we have to go to Florida now. So let's go to Florida.
Mike: Yes. Adam Walsh is six years old. His dad, John Walsh, who we now know from hosting America's Most Wanted for 700 years, John Walsh is just a normal hotel developer. He's developing a large hotel property on The Bahamas. So he moves him and his family – he's from New York, but he moves him and his family down to Hollywood, Florida - which is a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
Sarah: So, he's a prosperous guy with a young kid and everythings going the way it's supposed to.
Mike: Yes. So July 27th of 1981, his wife, Revé, and Adam go to a Sears and they're walking around and Revé is shopping for lamps. Adam sees a couple of kids playing Atari and he's like, “Hey mom, do you mind while you're shopping, I'm just going to hang out with these kids and watch them play Atari.” So, it's two white kids and two black kids and I listened to a podcast, a really interesting podcast series about this case, that went into a lot of the details and this story was being told by Adam Walsh's brother.
So six years after he disappeared, John and Revé had another kid, and he's now the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. So he's telling the story and you know how whenever anyone is telling a story and they mentioned the race of the people in it, you're instantly like, that had better be relevant really fast.
So, telling the story of what happened at the Sears and so it's two white kids in two black kids. Revé goes off to shop for lamps. Adam stays with the kids. The kids start fighting. So the white kids and the black kids start yelling at each other about whose turn it is to play and how long they're taking and then a security guard comes up. There are also other weird details too and that the security guard that comes over had an abortion the day before, which is, again, a weird detail to put into this story.
Sarah: Like, how did we find this out and at what point did it become relevant? That's so weird that we know that.
Mike: What she says later is that she didn't get any sleep the night before and she was totally frazzled. She's emotionally fragile.
Sarah: I'm honestly shocked as hell that the moral majority didn't pick up this as an anti-abortion argument, because if you have an abortion, you'll be so consumed by grief that a child would be abducted on your watch.
Mike: I think, I mean, whenever you hear details like this in stories you get really suspicious. Like, why the fuck are you mentioning that she had an abortion the day before? But according to the brother of Adam Walsh, she just had asked for time off and they didn't give it to her, and she was just, like, not there that day.
Sarah: Okay, so this is really about workers’ rights.
Mike: Yes. But so, she sees this altercation between these kids, and she just assumes that Adam is with the white kids.
Mike: Because it's like the white kids versus the black kids. So she's just like, “All right, all you white kids get out of here. All you black kids, go to this other exit or whatever.” She just wants to separate the kids.
Sarah: She just wants to stop a rumble.
Mike: So what happens is Adam gets sent off with these white kids, but then the white kids are like, “We don't know who this kid is.” They're much older. They're ten or eleven.
Sarah: So they're jerks.
Mike: And so this is all we know, that the white kids are like, “Well, you're not with us,” and they just sort of wander out of the store. You know how big box stores have these random things that aren't, like, the front? So what we think happened is he just ended up outside of some random exit outside of the store, but nobody knows that at the time. So poor Revé, his mom, comes back. She doesn't find him. The other boys are gone. Nobody's at the Atari thing. She wanders around. After about an hour, she calls the cops and like most of these stories what this really is, is a story of police incompetence.
Sarah: Ding, ding, ding, ding! Another of our themes.
Mike: So what happens is there's a two week period.
Sarah: Where the police assumed that he's hitchhiked away to Disney World because that's what six year old’s are known for doing.
Mike: So what's weird is the cops at the time, in a way, do the right thing in that Revé is like, “A stranger must've taken my child. My child has been abducted,” and the cops are like, “Well, that's really statistically not likely and it's probably the parents. It's probably the people in his life,” which is, statistically speaking, totally true.
Sarah: Right. That's the entire thing that we're going to be trying to convince everyone of this whole time.
Mike: So the cops, statistically speaking, were acting correctly, but in this particular case, they were acting appallingly incorrectly. So three days before this happens, there was a girl, this eleven year old girl, who was at a Kmart and some guy came up to her and was asking her a bunch of questions and then tried to snatch her and put her in his cart. This guy that was clearly mentally ill. So this girl was super rattled and so she and her parents called the cops. This was at a Kmart, like, a hundred meters, 200 meters away. They call the cops. They give a description of this guy. Three days later, the cops in Adam's case don't even look into it. They're like, “Fake kids. Kmart’s. Whatever.” Like, they don't look into that lead at all.
Sarah: Putting aside the fact that you can be wrong even if you're arguing for the thing that's way more statistically likely, like those are holes you can't help falling into, the cops should generally just try harder than they seem to.
Mike: There’s also a lot of leads at the time of guys in vans. Like, this might be where the guys in vans thing comes from because, of course, as soon as this makes it to the news, everybody who was at that shopping mall of course is like, “I saw this suspicious thing. I saw that suspicious thing.” So all these stories are coming in about this guy in a van driving around slowly. “I saw this other guy in a pickup truck.” So there's all these leads coming in.
Sarah: And a tipster calls in about a black guy in a van and the cop hopefully is like, “Is this relevant to the story?”
Mike: So the cops are basically like, “No, fuck all that. We're interested in the people in this kid's life.” So they get very interested in the fact that John Walsh has a friend of his, a childhood friend, sleeping on his couch at the time. Dun dun duunn. So they get real interested in this guy. They bring him in for questioning. They sit him down and give him a polygraph test. In the polygraph he admits that he's having sex with Revé.
Mike: Yes. So it's not clear if he and Revé were having an affair at the time or if it was over at that point. The cops kind of can't decide.
Sarah: Poor Revé. Your child disappears and then the police are like, “Well, we found out that you had an affair with your husband's friend.”
Mike: Obviously the cops are like, eureka. Right? They're like, “We've got this sketchy dude sleeping on his couch. We've got the wife is maybe sleeping with this guy. So then the theory that they start pursuing is that Revé wasn't shopping for lamps, she was having an affair. So she left the store to have an affair.
Sarah: What if Revé can have affairs and buy lamps simultaneously?
Mike: It also just doesn't really change the facts of the case.
Sarah: It feels like they're applying the logic of like, “Oh, these people were doing something that is considered immoral. So this is deviant behavior and child murder is also deviant behavior.”
Mike: My favorite detail from this is the fact that this guy that was sleeping on their couch, not only does he have an alibi, right? So his alibi was he was at work. He was running a jet ski rental agency at the time. So he was at work. Not only was he at work though. During the time when Adam Walsh disappeared, he was filming a commercial. So he was on camera for essentially the entire day that Adam Walsh disappeared. This guy's not only at work, he's on camera filming a commercial. So it's quite clear that whatever happened he’s not the one that took Adam. Even if he's the mastermind and he orchestrated it somehow, they still don't know who actually took the child and yet this is something they pursue. They also pursue this weird lead that because John Walsh had a couple of casinos in The Bahamas, they also think that it's a mob hit.
Sarah: Well, mobsters are known for quietly killing family members without making any explicit threats or demands, I guess.
Mike: So, this is the two weeks after the boy disappears. This is what they spend their time doing, basically. Meanwhile, what's really interesting about this period too is that this is one of the first disappearances to become national news.
Sarah: We really only started giving a shit about children really recently, huh?
Mike: One of the things that comes up in this a lot is that John Walsh is really good, and I don't think in a cynical way, but he's really good at keeping media attention on this case. So he's holding press conferences almost every day. He gives out offers of rewards. He's going on TV all the time to talk about his son. He's trying to make it this bigger issue about all the other children that go missing, and he's also talking about police incompetence, right? He's talking to us about how there's no central database. There's no agency that you can report these disappearances to. He's talking about how the police aren't really working all that hard. He's really bringing it immediately to this higher level of, “It's not just about my child. It's about everybody else's child too.”
So he goes on Good Morning America. It's one of the first victims of a crime like this to go on Good Morning America and do this very earnest, very heartbreaking, legit, like, he's a real person, like, a real, heartbreaking interview about his son and the disappearance and everything that's going on. But so, the day that he goes on Good Morning America, they find Adam's head in a drainage ditch off the Florida turnpike. It's awful.
Sarah: Oh, God.
Mike: 130 miles north of Hollywood, Florida.
Sarah: How long after the disappearance was that?
Mike: Two weeks. And to this day they've never found the rest of his body.
Sarah: Oh God.
Mike: Eventually the trail leads investigators somehow. One of these tips about, I think he was a shoplifter or just a shady dude in the mall, leads them to this guy, Ottis Toole, who almost immediately confesses to the crime. This is so weird. He says that he wanted to adopt Adam. He says that he wanted a child to raise. So that was what was going through his head. He has an IQ of 70. He's not all there, really.
So what he says is he takes Adam from the store. He puts him into his 1971 Cadillac, gets him in there promising him toys and candy. Which is, I think, another place that that myth comes from of luring you into a van with candy. Gets him into the car. So then almost immediately, it seems like his plan of raising Adam doesn’t really work out, that this kid obviously is extremely upset. He hits the kid a bunch of times. That matches the forensic evidence because the skull that they find, Adam's head has a broken nose or like, contusions on his nose or something like that. Like, they can tell that he's been hit in the face. They can also tell that he was unconscious at the time that he was decapitated.
Sarah: Well, that's really, in context, extremely good news.
Mike: That is one of the few saving graces in this entire miserable case. Then Toole says that he had choked Adam unconscious before he decapitated him with a machete. So, these are things that aren't in the news reports at the time and that he's able to corroborate. But then what's weird is Toole ends up confessing to 50 murders in a bunch of different states, and he knew this guy, Henry Lee Lucas.
Sarah: Who confessed to, like, 600 murders.
Mike: And it seems like just something he did on a whim.
Sarah: To me, what makes the Ottis Toole confession just strike me on a gut level as credible is that it's just a stupid crime of opportunity. There is no… He's kind of this Leatherface sort of a person in that story. Like, he just got in over his head and then he freaked out and beat the child and then disposed of the body and that makes so much more sense than whatever evil, malevolent force that is very hard to actually picture in human form that is supposedly lurking in all these stranger danger stories.
Sarah: That makes sense to me as what could have actually happened.
Mike: So he confesses in this detailed way. For some reason, he has Adam's clothing wrong. So that's something that doesn't make sense. A couple of months later, he's sold the Cadillac by now. The cops go to a used car dealership, get the Cadillac, and then start combing through it for any evidence of Adam, right? Any blood, any hair, any whatever. This is before DNA is very good, but they have some sort of rudimentary ways of figuring out if Adam was in the car. They don't find anything. So all they have is the confession of Toole, but no actual other evidence.
Weirdly, this poor girl who was almost abducted at the Kmart, she sees a photo of Toole in the newspaper and she's like, “Yep, that's the guy.” She said she remembers the gap between his teeth. So, the weirdest thing, the last little nugget of police incompetence is that the cops comb the car, and they don't really find anything and they're like, “Okay,” and they give it back to the used car dealership.
Mike: They’re just like, “Alright. Peace out.”
Sarah: Even if you don't think it could possibly yield any other evidence, even if you think forensic science is going to stay forever the way it was in 1981, like, don't you want kind of a neat car for someone to buy at the police auction? Like, use your head.
Mike: So basically, he recants his confession, Toole. Then a couple of years later, he confesses again. His niece says, “Oh, he confessed to me,” but then he recants that confession and then he dies in 1996 of cirrhosis of the liver. There's no real climax to the story. It just sort of trails off.
Later on, something like a couple years after he dies, the police department sort of officially closes the case and says the Toole did it. That's all later. So again, what America knows in 1981 is the missing boy, the crusading father, and this horrible detail about the head.
So, one thing that comes up in a lot of the academic literature on this is how quickly this idea of stranger danger solidified in America, that they say it was really three years. It was 1981 to 1984. Before 1981, every kid in America was out playing, out in the Creek, staying out late, whatever. By 1984, it was lockdown.
Mike: Yeah. Right after 1981, there's a huge closing of the ranks around this as an issue, that the entire culture decides this is the biggest thing. The detail I cannot get over… so, NBC makes a TV movie in 1983 called Adam, which is about the Adam Walsh story. So at the end of the broadcast, they flashed the pictures and the names of 57 missing kids. Then – this is insane – they rebroadcast it in 1984, 1985 and after them, Ronald Reagan, the president, delivers an address where he reads out the names of 60 missing children.
Sarah: People forget how big of a deal TV movies used to be.
Mike: I know. It's like, this is what the main thing I've learned doing the show is. TV movies were the shit.
Sarah: Sibyl. Adam.
Sarah: My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel may be not as paradigm shifting as those, but…
Mike: I mean, can you imagine what a big deal it is for you to do an entertainment thing and the fucking president gives an address afterwards. That's huge.
Sarah: Yeah. There are three networks at the time. Whatever is on one channel is going to capture a significant minority of American viewers unless it's something really boring, like, bowling.
Mike: I think there's also, I think, a discovery that this is great ratings too. This thing of a missing child, that it's something you can milk for content for weeks, right? “Still no break in the case. Have you seen him?” It's always these all American kids. It's these terrible stories which I do think people kind of love to wallow in, you know, like, “She was riding her bike and…”
Mike: “His pickup truck came by.” Like, people love these stories of stolen innocence. Right? I started looking up the prevalence, like, how much people believed in this at the time. It's unbelievable. I mean, by ‘87, 68% of Americans consider it a national crisis… missing children. Like you said, the numbers that start bouncing around at this time are completely fucking insane. So Adam Walsh gets kidnapped in July of ‘81. We have our first congressional hearing in October of 1981.
Sarah: About missing children.
Mike: Yeah. One of the things they talked about in the moral panic literature is that moral panic has to take on new forms. So it starts out as a media phenomenon, but then once the government starts legislating about it, then it legitimizes it as a crisis. Right? So it begins as these stories that you hear, then it gets laundered through the media, then it shows up in Congress and there's footage from these hearings. There’re laws being passed. The first law that gets passed is in 1982.
Sarah: What law is that?
Mike: It's the Federal Missing Children's Act. Basically, I mean, John Walsh is correct in pointing out that at the time there is no national database. He points out that, you know, if your car gets stolen, you report the serial number to somewhere and then it's in this central database for all the stolen cars in America. There's nothing like that for children and everything is completely local. A lot of local police departments have waiting periods, right?
So your kid has to be missing for twenty-four hours before you can report. It has to be missing for 72 hours before you can report it. He says, “Well, that wouldn't have helped Adam because he would have been long gone by that time.” So he's pointing out that… you know, to some extent, that's true. There's no toll free number that you can call. One thing that he wants Congress to do, and this is what he comes and testifies to, that he wants all of this to be streamlined and for the government to actually make it a priority. There's no agency that does this either, so he also calls for the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is still around.
Sarah: Isn't it amazing how much social change can happen if it plays on a substrate of persistent anxieties and a white guy with money and influence spearheads the whole thing. Like, you can really get things done if you have those two factors in place.
Mike: And also a huge factor in this was that there was essentially no data. I mean, this is another thing that John Walsh points out as a problem. There's no data on how many children there are. So, these bullshit numbers go bouncing around. So the opening statement to the first congressional hearing about missing children in 1981– this is a representative named Paul Simon. His opening statement is, “The figures you get will vary, but let's take the most conservative estimate and that's that 50,000 young people disappear every year because of stranger kidnappings. That's the most conservative figure you'll get anywhere. There's about 4,000 to 8,000 children each year who are found dead and probably a majority have experienced some type of sexual exploitation.”
Sarah: That's not true.
Mike: That's not even remotely true. I mean, it's like an order of magnitude off.
Sarah: You can just stand before Congress, and you say things and they just become true because you say them at that moment.
Mike: Yeah. There's a pamphlet called To Save A Child distributed by a Chicago television station. This is how it starts, “Nearly 2 million children in this country disappear from their homes each year. Many end up raped, forced into prostitution, and pornography. Many are never heard from again.” So we've now got 2 million, which, as you mentioned, is 1/30th of the entire population every year.
Sarah: Yeah. You know, it's a sci-fi, limited series type situation.
Mike: Yeah. One of the things that's really interesting is that any time somebody questions the numbers, they get “Don't you care about the children?” There's another commercial hearing in 1986 where one of the senators says, like, “These numbers don't seem very correct,” and so the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the president of the organization said, “I don't think anything has surprised me more than this preoccupation with numbers and the ‘only a few,’ ‘only this,’ ‘only that.’ There are little, helpless citizens of this country being held hostage, scared to death, totally unable to take care of themselves being held hostage by terrorists. What is it with the ‘only’?
Sarah: Wow. They threw terrorists in the mix. That's inspired.
Mike: So John Walsh… this apparently has become famous among scholars for exaggerated congressional testimony.
Sarah: I want to go to happy hour with four scholars of exaggerated congressional testimony because that would be a really good time.
Mike: Lots of the articles are like, “The now infamous John Walsh congressional testimony.” I'm like, Ooh, I want to read, like, why this is infamous, but I could never find the article that actually originated this. One of the things that comes up is that the definition of missing child that they're using at the time is a child that is missing for any period of time. So a child that is missing for ten minutes, you call the cops and then he wanders home, that counts as a missing child. So, people are pointing out that you're conflating the most extreme version of missing child with the least extreme version. Like, you're lumping all of this together into one term missing child and you've got raped kids and you got kids that disappear for ten minutes to the grocery store and then come back.
Somebody starts questioning John Walsh about this in one of these later congressional hearings and he does the same thing. He goes, “If it was your daughter and you were waiting for her and she didn't come home for four hours and after that time she came home with bloody underpants and she had been raped, was she a missing child? Damn well she was.”
Sarah: Interesting and perhaps not coincidentally, the intense fear that adults fear about the revelation that child sexual abuse exists and the rates of “incest” at the time, that flame is really fanned by the fact that we have the same thing happening with statistics, where there will be a survey about, you know, “Was there any kind of behavior in the home between you and a family member that made you uncomfortable? Like, did your dad touch you lingering ever in a way that felt weird?” And if someone answers yes, then take that yes answer as meaning the same thing as saying yes to the question of “Did a family member rape you at any time?” So they're saying sexual abuse rates within the family are as high as 50%.
Mike: Right. Yeah, so you take the most loosely defined version of the term and then you apply the most extreme version of it to the entire category.
Sarah: And I feel like the thing about hysteria, because there's no way to react to that news but with hysteria, is that it burns itself out and you see, you know, we have these cycles where America starts and stops paying attention to child sexual abuse based on factories, including the Industrial Revolution and World War I.
What I think happened in the late seventies is that we began for really the first time as a society to see that incest, sexual abuse within the family, abuse perpetrated by parents, by good, solid, middle Americans, that the call was coming from inside the house that this was something we really needed to deal with and instead we started projecting it onto the evil, shadowy figure in the van with the candy and that was all we talked about. We seized on the statistically non-representative but horrifying cases.
These panics… I feel like they probably often come at times when we're being shown things about ourselves and about the heart of America and how it's dangerous and how there are systemic problems there that we need to deal with. We really need to tell ourselves that the biggest threat to us as a society is actually something from outside of it.
Mike: Right. Yeah.
Sarah: That has a lot to do with why we directed our fears in this direction.
Mike: The fact that Ronald Reagan was president when this caught fire is not a coincidence.
Mike: And this became a huge rallying cry for the right and a huge thing that pulled the country in a conservative direction.
Sarah: And a way to deny gay rights, because gay people are child molesters in early eighties America. So, if you want an excuse to not let gay men be teachers, you can focus on your fear for your child and not on the fact that you're endorsing a position that has no statistical support and is pointlessly homeless.
Mike: Yeah. Jerry Falwell shows up in a lot of the cases of stranger danger. He founds something called the Child Protection Task Force in 1985. So they start selling kits to families, like, a Child Protection Safety Kit.
Sarah: What kind of a profit are they realizing on these items, I wonder.
Mike: The article I came across was all about all of the opportunism that came along with stranger danger and one of the things that the Christian right did was in all the promotional materials for things like the child protection safety kit, they said, “You can keep your children from becoming the slaves of perverted monsters.”
The narrative that they were peddling in American society, and are still to some extent to this day, is about the degradation of American society, right? The moral rot. How we're fallen as a society and they're sinful and women are showing their crop tops and…
Sarah: Well, you and I, as this panic goes, like, you and I are two of the people who are supposed to want to do these things, right? Like, I'm a feminist who has sex on purpose and is unmarried at thirty and you're a homosexual. So, I guess, like, why would… what purpose would a child slave even serve in either of our lives?
When I think about the stranger danger thing and the sense that there are thousands of people who are desperate to abduct your children, it's like, “I don't have time for a child or to abduct anyone just because I'm sort of vaguely immoral sexually.” Like, who is supposed to be doing this.
Mike: I came across a total Sarah bait article that talks about the rise in prevalence of the word predator.
Sarah: Oh, that is Sarah bait. I'm really excited to read this.
Mike: Between 1979 and 1989, use of the word predator goes up 900%.
Sarah: That sounds about right.
Mike: Reconceiving the homosexuals or whoever as predator and children as prey was not a framing that had been used before. We didn't think of kids in this way. We thought of kids as somebody with agency and we start taking away very quickly the agency from children, even kids that are relatively old, you know, a twelve year old kid. All of a sudden, we get really nervous about a 12 year old kid, you know, riding the bus by themselves, which is something that kids did all the time and kids are pretty smart and they can manage interactions. Even if it's a negative interaction, they can usually handle it. But all of a sudden, because there's predators out there, we get really worried about kids having really any autonomy. There's two other factors that make this total catnip for the American right.
Another thing is that it also attests to government incompetence. There's this really telling anecdote from Ronald Reagan where he's talking about how this company Trailways, they have a program called Operation Home Free that allows runaway kids to get a free ride back home on their buses, which is a nice marketing opportunity for them. So, Reagan – this is in the mid-eighties – Ronald Reagan is telling this story to some sort of public event, and he says, “Maybe you're wondering how much time passed between Jim's phone call and the first child's ride on a Trailways bus. It took ten days. You know, I can't help thinking how long it would have taken, how many millions of taxpayer dollars would have been spent if the program had been put together by a federal agency.
Sarah: Down with big government! Let the bus companies solve our problems.
Mike: Even John Walsh in his congressional testimony says, “Prior to this incident with Adam, we were great believers in the United States of America, but my beliefs in this system have been shaken to the core.” So he talks about, you know, a country that can launch a space shuttle that can return to the earth and take off again, a country that allocates millions of dollars to save a small fish, the snail darter in the Tennessee River Valley, but doesn't have a centralized reporting system or a nationwide search system for missing children.
Sarah: That was a nice swing at conservation law from right out of the middle of nowhere.
Mike: That’s the thing. It's this time in America where it's like, “Oh, political correctness is out of control. Like, everyone's got to wear seatbelts and we're saving animals,” and like we've seen over and over again, it's something that the left - Clinton and everybody else - just swallows.
Sarah: You know what’s great too is that you will never be hard enough on crime for your opponent's liking if you're anything other than a rock ribbed Republican because someone somewhere is going to, if only accidentally, be the recipient of some kind of mercy and then your campaign will not have been enough, and you just have to keep being tougher and tougher.
Mike: Another thing that I'm secretly convinced is also a huge reason why this was such a big deal
Sarah: Yes, Scully?
Mike: Companies use this as a huge marketing opportunity. So usually in my notes I put in bold, or I highlight things that I want to read. And this entire section of this article that I found, I highlighted the entire section. It's like two pages. There are all these examples of the ways that companies took advantage of this.
Sarah: Oh my God.
Mike: So there's something called Chevron Cares, which is Chevron giving not that much money to trash bins that have pictures of missing children on them that say, “Save our children.”
Sarah: That is truly a staggering amount of caring.
Mike: American Airlines does a thing where they will fly kids home for free if they've been abducted or they’re runaway children. Quality Inn does the same thing, where they have a hotline in every hotel lobby where you can call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and they also say they'll give free hotel rooms to kids that have been kidnapped or missing or runaway or whatever. But these companies, I think, on some level they know how rare these cases actually are.
Sarah: Well, yeah.
Mike: I don’t know, but American Airlines did not give away that many free tickets.
Sarah: Well, what kind of documentation are you expected to provide? I bet if you went to an American Airlines ticket counter in 1985 and were like, “Hello, I'm a missing child and I would like one ticket to Cleveland, please,” they would ask for the police report.
Mike: Safeway, Winn-Dixie, and other supermarket chains had missing children’s photographs on their grocery bags. The rental car company Avis has missing children’s photographs in rental agreement folders. They put it in at least eight million customers’ folders. In Kmart when you would get your film developed, they would put in a photo of a missing child. They did this for 135 million…
Mike: Envelopes of film. This was unbelievable. Raising awareness is fucking a great way to get really good publicity while pretending to care about any social issue.
Sarah: Yeah. You're just raising people's feelings of upsetness. Like, I was thinking about it while I was doing the research this week and just how often you could replace the word awareness with the word fear.
Sarah: Because fear does feel like a productive activity. It's one of the more caloric emotions. You do feel like you're doing something, even as you're just sitting there in your living room, you know, feeling anxious and thinking about how your kids definitely won't take the bus.
Mike: Does this phrase mean anything to you? “Advo asks, have you seen me?”
Sarah: What is that?
Mike: You didn't have those?
Sarah: I don't think so.
Mike: Oh my God!
Sarah: What is that?
Mike: Advo is the country's largest direct mailing company. It’s who you contract with to send out coupons to ten billion Americans or whatever and I remember these really vividly from growing up that every time you would go to the mailbox and get the junk mail bullshit, there would always be a postcard in there called, “Advo asks: Have you seen me?” and it would be a picture of some kid and would be like, “Jenny Jones. She disappeared in Wichita, Kansas,” but it would have a little story.
Sarah: I think in Oregon we didn't care about missing children. It's a more libertarian state. Those kids were on their own.
Mike: I mean, when you think about it, the marketing is genius, right? Because they're saying “Advo asks.” They're immediately associating themselves with a crusading social justice issue, right? They're like, “Well, we're a company that cares about missing kids.” They say that they were distributing 79 million of these postcards every week.
Sarah: Which is slightly less than the number of children that go missing every year in America.
Mike: There's also my favorite category of this was insurance companies started selling packages.
Sarah: Oh no.
Mike: That were the Child Abduction Package where you could get a private investigator, counseling services, $50,000 in reward money, and $10,000 in travel funds if your kid gets kidnapped.
Sarah: That’s tempting parents who are already far more likely to abduct or kill their children to abduct or kill their children. It was a great decade for parents who killed their kids because you could really deflect.
Mike: The private sector thing is also sort of a right-wing thing too, because, of course, Reagan at the same time and all these other people are saying, “Oh, we need private sector solutions.” If there's one thing they love, it's when the private sector can step in and do things. So this whole idea of volunteerism and the government, you know, it's not up to the government to save you. This idea that it's up to you to protect yourself, right? I mean, it was the perfect thing to give momentum to the country’s rightward drift. Based on this, you can get really tough on crime. You can get tough on perverts. You can say, “Oh, the government's ineffective.” It was just perfect.
Sarah: Well, I have a nice paragraph from Moral Panic that I want to read about statistics. So this is, once again, from Phillip Jenkins’ Moral Panic, and we're talking about actual statistics now that we've heard so much about alleged statistics. “Consider children below the age of twelve, the age group of interests to pedophiles,” which is a nicely delicate way of putting it. “Between 1980 and 1994 in the United States, 13,600 such individuals were murdered.” We're talking about murder statistics. “About 900 per year of these, more than 400 each year were infants under the age of one and were usually killed by their parents.” Even these are a little bit dodgy because as we learn from discussing shaken baby syndrome, those statistics reflect people who were convicted of killing their babies, maybe based on faulty forensic science, but, you know, let's assume it's something closer to that than the 50,000. “In contrast, strangers accounted for the murders of just 6% of the annual total or about 54 children per year.”
Sarah: “But even the strangers were not necessarily sex killers, and only 3% of the crimes or twenty-seven cases each year did a sex offense either occur simultaneously with or proceeded the murder of a child. One fifth of these cases, about five victims per year, involved the murder of a child by a stranger in a sexual assault. About nine more deaths each year were attributed to neighbors or acquaintances.
Examining cases of young people under the age of eighteen, recent survey has estimated that about 100 abduction murders annually can be attributed to strangers. These figures for sex killings can usefully be set alongside the hundreds of child murders caused each year by physical maltreatment, neglect, and torture usually at the hands of parents or other family members.” So, five victims per year are murdered by a stranger who also sexually assaults them.
Mike: I came across a 1985 Denver Post article that won a Pulitzer for looking into the numbers. This was in the midst of the stranger danger panic.
Sarah: I'm sure this person was so popular for having conducted this study.
Mike: So they find out that the actual number of stranger abductions is fewer than the number of preschoolers who choked to death on food every year. They contrast these estimates of 1.5 million, 2 million, 50,000, whatever with the fact that the FBI the previous year had investigated 67 cases.
Mike: There's a huge national effort to get good statistics on this and this is 1990 and they say the stereotypical stranger abductions are somewhere between forty-three and 147.
Sarah: Per year.
Mike: Per year. And that's it. But then of course what's weird about this and, like, you always want to say like, “And no one believed it again,” but then the beliefs, even though these numbers get debunked, the actual beliefs behind them, the beliefs behind the panic just don't go anywhere. No one updated their risk matrix to be like, “Oh, well I guess you can walk to the grocery store.” Like, we just kept the paranoia.
Sarah: Think about how reluctant people are to update their operating systems.
Mike: Another thing, I looked into a lot of the statistics now. I mean, if you look at them per capita, the numbers have not changed since the 1970s and what's interesting is in recent years, so since the nineties, kidnappings have plummeted. and they say the reason is that kids have cell phones now, and security cameras.
Sarah: The same reasons it's hard to be a serial killer.
Mike: Yeah. There's just way more surveillance. And the kind of brazen shit that Ottis Toole did of luring a kid into your car, like, that would be on the security camera. The license plate would be on the security camera.
Sarah: It speaks to how easy American life was in every way in the sixties, seventies, and into the eighties, for a white man who owned a button up shirt. Because here's someone who has a low IQ, who has all kinds of issues with violence and mental illness, and still is able to be driving a nice car and can get work, day labor enough to support himself and continue his dangerous odyssey around America for a really long time. It was also just a better economy. Like, you could have just no real skills or abilities of any kind and still just get a job. I mean, Ottis Toole today just infrastructurally would be in horrible debt for having gotten a Band-Aid from an ER once.
Mike: So there's two more numbers I want to read to you. We just covered that kidnappings, there's between 50 and 150, right? So among family abductions, being abducted by a family member, 203,000.
Sarah: Good God!
Mike: One of the things that was really under the radar and freelancers should have been pitching stories about, the explosion in divorce was also an explosion in custody battles.
Sarah: Oh. Of course.
Mike: And so, this actually happened to this kid that I had a crush on in my high school, which is why I remember this, that his dad kidnapped him from his mom and his mom went on The Today Show to try to get him back and one of the neighbors called in and got him back. This is all when he was, like, five years old and he doesn't really remember it. That still happens a lot. It’s like 78% of these cases. That's like 150,000 a year. The non-custodial parent basically absconds with the child.
There are also 1.5 million children that run away every year. That's also a really high number. 99% of them return home. Most of those are at the same week, but they also mentioned that most of them are fleeing physical or sexual abuse. So the actual crisis of missing children, if you want to find one, seems like kids running away from just really sad households, really awful places. Weirdly that has never captured the country's attention in the same way.
Sarah: Yeah. So, I mean, it feels like we're still living in this world to some extent. Like, what? Did this deflate? Did it ever decline? What happened?
Mike: Yeah, what it became was a bunch of shit laws. There's this really interesting term that I read in another paper that talks about moral panic legislation where you've got really bad definitions of all of your terms. It's drafted hastily. It has a really broad scope, and it doesn't consider any side effects. So it's just like, “We need to pass it! Save the children! Blah, blah, blah, blah!” And then the err example of this is what we're still living through now with sex offender registrations, that one of these acts that gets passed after this, it's called the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and so it does this thing where it organized sex offenders into three tiers and says that tier three, like the worst sex offender.
Sarah: The Bennington College of sex offenders.
Mike: Have to update their whereabouts every three months and register for their entire life. So, there's of course been all these studies of “What is the effect of sex offender laws?” and it’s the perfect moral panic legislation in that the worst offenders, the hottest Tooles of the world, what they do is they don't register. Right? Because these people are off the grid. They're intending to commit the crime again.
Sarah: That’s a very good point. They're like, “America is full of mastermind, manipulative, evil arch-maniacs, so we're going to make a registry and they have to go sign up for it.” Like, who could imagine that the most hardened offenders wouldn't actually comply with our bureaucratic procedure?
Mike: And like, “Sign up using your AOL address and we'll just keep track of you.” So basically what happens is the worst offenders don't use the registry, but then the people that are the least likely to re-offend. You know, people get sex offender thingies for having sex with their fifteen year old girlfriend when they are eighteen. Like…
Sarah: I mean, there are states now where you can be arrested for possessing child pornography if you're under eighteen and you take a naked selfie of yourself.
Mike: Yeah. Another thing that I've read, which I didn't know, was that sex offenders are actually one of the least likely to re-offend types of criminals. The recidivism rate is only 12%. You've got somebody who's not that likely to re-offend and then it's like, oh, well now he can't get a house. He can't get a job. He's a felon. Anyone who Googles him finds his picture.
Sarah: If your neighbor or if your community member hears the phrase sex offender and they immediately jumped to, “Oh, this is a baby raper and strangler,” because that's how we've been trained to hear the phrase sex offender as Americans and that can mean anything.
Mike: Totally. Also, because sex offenders in California are not allowed to live within 2000 feet of a park, neighborhoods in LA have been making mini parks so that they can't move there. So they'll turn a parking spot into a cute, little, grassy area with cafe chairs on it and be like, “Sorry, it's a park. I guess sex offenders can't live here.”
Sarah: I find it so horrifyingly predictable that if you petition, you're like, “We need green space. We need it for the kids so people can have outdoor time and it's healthy and quality of life,” and everyone's like, “Nooo,” and if you’re like, “How about if you can be tough on crime by building a park?” They’re like, “Go on.”
Mike: One of the first articles I ever wrote for my student newspaper was there was a big scandal near my college that some sex offenders had moved in on one of the routes between my college and the city and I ended up interviewing somebody from the city about, you know, why have you put halfway housing here? And they said, “Look, if you draw a thousand foot circle around schools, a thousand foot circle around the parks, a thousand foot circle around tourist destinations, there's literally nowhere to live.”
These sex offender registration laws have become so restrictive that it's like you either live way out in a rural area where you can't get any services or you are not allowed to live in the city at all and so the city at that time was just like, “Fuck it. Let's just put them somewhere.”
Sarah: There are times when I, being an emotionally complex and therefore fragile person, feel like the whole world is against me when the 7/11 cashier looks at me weird. So like, imagine everyone literally being against you and imagine if your initial offense had to do, as criminal offenses so often do, with a lack of resources, a lack of support, a lack of emotional stability with, you know, certain desires, certain proclivities, certain urges, and you're trying to not do what your urges are telling you to do, but it's easier to be disciplined if you have more resources than if you have fewer and if the world is treating you like a pariah and making it harder for you to get services, harder to work, harder to have any kind of meaningful connection with a human being, then that's not going to decrease the chances of you re-offending.
Mike: Totally. I mean, that's the thing is you're creating the situation that you're pretending to be concerned about.
Sarah: Yeah. Once again.
Mike: There's also amber alerts, famously.
Sarah: Which do seem to… do those work?
Mike: The scholars of that say that they do actually work for the extremely narrow thing that they're used for. I mean, luckily they're not using them for every kid. When they passed the law, they said specifically it can't be used for family abductions. Right? So it's only used, I think, something like 500 times per year in the whole country. You know? They’re localized.
Sarah: Yeah. And I've gotten like four or five of them in my whole life.
Mike: Yeah. But so what the scholars say about that is that they're like Yes, fine. They help with the extremely narrow number of cases that they're applicable to, but they sort of reinforce this idea that this is the type of childhood that we should be worried about. This is the most prevalent thing. This is the thing we should all be scared of when, you know, there's 200,000 abductions of children by their custodial guardians every year. There are all these other forms of child abuse that are taking place, and this is the one we're concerned about. Right? So, it's not necessarily that we have to get rid of them. It's more like why is this the one thing that we treat like an emergency?
Sarah: I guess we need a push alert every day that says, “The system still has flaws.”
Mike: Yeah. I mean, to me, the legacy of this is first of all, like, there's been a number of prosecutions of parents for letting their kids go outside. There was a prosecution of a couple in Maryland who let their ten and six year old go to the park by themselves. Somebody called the cops, which is already ridiculous and then CPS came and took their children away and didn't call them. These parents are like, “What the fuck?” And lose their minds and the kids don't come back for like six more hours. The kids have obviously had a bad night. The parents have had a bad night and the parents, of course, are just like, “Why didn't you just call us? Like, a five minute phone call? We would have just said, Oh, it's our kids. No big deal.” When the cops picked up their kids, why didn't the cops just drive them home? Like, we're deeply suspicious not only of kids roaming around by themselves, but parents who let their kids roam around by themselves.
Sarah: You know who I'm deeply suspicious of?
Mike: I know what you're going to say.
Sarah: I mean, I know that there are people in America who when they see a cop car or when they see a police officer that you're like, “This person is protecting me.” I am demographically the person who the police are most interested in protecting in many ways and if I have to interact with a police officer, it's like going to tell a recently divorced dad at a barbecue that someone dinged his car in the parking lot. You're just like, this could go okay, but like, it probably won’t.
Mike: Yeah. To me, the afterlife of this is our bullshit panic right now over trafficking, you know. I came across an article about this that said, “From 2000 to 2002, the state department said 50,000 people were trafficked into the U.S. each year for forced sex or labor. By 2003, the agency reduced this estimate to 18 to 20,000 and then reduced it again to 14,000 to 17,000 in subsequent reports. That's a 71% decrease in just five years, though officials offered no explanation as to how they arrived at these numbers or what accounted for the drastic change.”
Sarah: What if it's because America is doing such a good job that they actually declined that much? Could it be that?
Mike: I mean, this is the thing. Like, to me, it has all of the structural parameters that stranger danger had in that we've got something that is so broadly defined that it applies to half the fucking labor force.
Sarah: And that's the other thing, right? Where it feels like human trafficking is one of those weaselly kind of a topics to where you can say that and then people, especially how you contextualize it, will basically hear you saying sex work and you can conflate those two fears even if you're talking about, you know, bringing someone to a different country under false pretenses so you can take their passport and not pay them any money to nanny for you.
Mike: Right. And then, I mean, it's the same kind of thing that once you start looking into how many cases have actually been investigated, it's like less than 2000 a year in the United States of actual trafficking get investigated or prosecuted, which, of course, then everybody says, “Well, oh, that's because it's under reported. That's because we don't care about it.” But like, I don't know, man. It might just be a moral panic. There's also the number I like the most is the International Organization of Migration says, “300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.”
Sarah: Aren't we all at risk in a way?
Mike: Buying and selling children and trafficking, like, transporting children around sounds like a fucking huge hassle. I don't think it's being done on any kind of grand scale.
Sarah: Like, think about what a day at Disney World is like with kids.
Mike: I mean, that’s the thing. Not to make light of this, but it's like we're just making the same mistake again. One of the things that I cannot get over is in the actual statistics for children that end up in prostitution, a huge percentage of them come straight from the foster care system because the foster care system is completely broken. Like, when I volunteered at a homeless shelter for my millennials article, you do intakes of people, right? You get their demographic information the first time they sleep there.
One of the categories on the form is “Have you been in the foster care system?” It's so bad it's on the fucking form. It's like all of the people that are decrying, like, child pornography and sex trafficking and how bad it is, I don't hear any of the same people talking about let's have a functioning foster care system. I mean, if you really want to keep kids from ending up as prostitutes, the number one thing you would do is get a functioning foster care system in place.
Sarah: Well, I guess by fixating on the idea of the child above the actual child, because I feel like, again, it's this very useful misdirection. If you are riling up the populace by telling them stories about the at-risk children and the white, suburban, American children that are endangered and have to be protected from the predators and the super predators and the sex offenders and the whoever else, then you could ignore the fact that there are actual children who we have, you know, government documentation on the imprisonment and detainment of, you know?
It feels like these shadowy fears that we never have any substantiation of, but that we want so badly to believe in are often something that we're focusing on so we don't have to look at something that's right behind us and that there's more documentation of than we could ever explain away. Everyone knows that foster care essentially means abuse. Everyone knows that. Everyone always has known that, you know? I mean, Mary Ellen McCormack, who inspired one of the discoveries of child abuse in America in 1873, was the 1873 version of a foster child. It begins and ends with that.
Mike: So, what did we learn? We learned let your kids roam around.
Sarah: Let your kids take the bus, let your kids play in the yard. If you are a child, be afraid of your family.
Mike: Maybe I should end with a quote, a quote that I wanted to read you. It's from one of these crime statistics reports. It says, “If a mother is afraid that her child might be abducted, her ironclad rule should not be, ‘Don't talk to strangers.’ It should be, ‘Don't talk to your father.’ Pretty fucking harsh, but statistically speaking also accurate. So, don't talk to your dad. Nobody talk to your dad today. I think that's a generalizable rule.
Sarah: The feminist pervert and the homosexual have spoken.