Yesterday, Callahan Walsh of NCMEC—The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children—appeared on Good Morning America to urge parents to stop using the phrase “stranger danger”—the phrase that NCMEC itself popularized for decades. They rightly noted—finally—that most child sexual exploitation is from someone known to the child, not a stranger.
For decades, NCMEC has told parents to fear “stranger danger,” and instructed them to transmit this fear to their kids. They even got the phrase institutionalized in elementary schools.
NCMEC has been one of the single biggest drivers of parents’ fear in our lifetime. By conflating “missing” and “exploited,” they have panicked Americans into thinking the average child is “at risk” of being kidnapped. By talking about “children” they conflate the experiences of five-year-olds and 17-year-olds. According to their own website, over 90% of “missing” teens are not “missing,” they have run away. Some are no doubt living on the street and risking their health and lives, but they have not been kidnapped. In fact, over 3/4 of runaways are running away from institutions like foster homes and other social services.
NCMEC is driving the issue of sex trafficking as hard as it can. By expanding the definition of “sex trafficking” to include every sex worker, porn actress, and minor person having sex with an adult, they have successfully convinced Americans that huge numbers of Americans are sex trafficked. It’s a lie.
NCMEC can’t document even a half-dozen cases of women forced to act in porn, but they’ve planted the idea that porn actresses are trafficked. Outside porn studios in L.A., women are lined up, begging for the chance to act in their films. Trafficked? The industry doesn’t need to traffic anyone. They never, ever knowingly employ minors, and they haven’t been fooled in decades.
NCMEC’s position on cybersex and cybercrime is a disaster. As the internet grew, NCMEC’s warnings about internet predators grew. NCMEC champions government stings in adult chatrooms where adults roleplay age games, pursuing adults for thought crimes that harm no one. Obviously, actual child molesters don’t look for kids in adult chatrooms. And there’s no science that shows that adults who play age games with other adults molest children. But frightening parents about internet predators is where the money is—and that’s always where you’ll find NCMEC.
NCMEC also champions Amber Alert, an enormous waste of money and criminal justice resources that could be used far more effectively. Its main accomplishment is to terrifying parents. Similarly, NCMEC favors punitive, counter-productive sex offender laws and registries—which includes putting children on these registries when they mistreat (“molest”) their peers.
Created by a few agonized people who had been devastated by violence against their children, NCMEC’s initial shocking message was (and still is) “you could be us,” creating an atmosphere of fear, rage, and moral panic completely disproportionate to the actual danger. Yesterday on TV, they encouraged parents to ignore what they used to say, and to use different, more sophisticated words. But their fundamental message—that parents should be scared, that predators lurk everywhere—remains the same.
In revoking their position on “stranger danger,” NCMEC still doesn’t tell the key truth—that the rate of kids being molested is NOT increasing (so says the FBI).
And while even a single missing child is too many, it isn’t even a fraction as many as NCMEC invites you to believe.
How many kids are kidnapped each year—150,000? 50,000? The fine print on NCMEC’s own website says the number is less than 1,400—of which over 1,000 are abductions by the child’s own family member. There are less than 200 stranger kidnappings in the U.S. every year. Your kid is more likely to get killed by lightning.
And yet by manipulating and reinforcing our deepest fears, NCMEC has entrenched itself as a political player getting significant government funding.
So good riddance to the fear of “stranger danger.” But don’t hold your breath waiting for NCMEC to apologize. Perhaps they could atone by encouraging parents to pay attention to the biggest danger that kids actually face—texting while riding their bikes.