There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in U.S.
Imagine you are 10 years old and being led, along with your 6-year-old sibling, into the back seat of a police cruiser. The police promise to take you home to your parents, just three blocks away.
Instead, they detain you in the car for three hours, without a meal or access to a restroom. The sun sets, night falls. Eventually the cops take you to a facility maintained by Child Protective Services, where you're kept for another several hours. You still haven't had dinner. You aren't reunited with your parents until 10:30 p.m., nearly six hours after your ordeal began.
That happened to the Meitiv children of Silver Spring, Md., on Sunday, April 12, according to the children's parents. After a long family road trip, the children went to a neighborhood park with their parents' permission and strict instructions to be home by 6 p.m. They never made it, because the cops picked them up after receiving a call from someone who saw the siblings walking down the street together.
The children were detained ostensibly to protect them from the dangers of walking home in a wealthy Washington suburb recently rated the 'most caring suburb in America' by the real estate blog Movoto. But you have to wonder which is worse for a child's well-being: walking down the street without an adult or being detained by the cops and family services for nearly six hours.
Fortunately, we have some data to answer that question. The first thing to note is that the overall child mortality rate in the United States has never been lower. In 1935, for instance, there were nearly 450 deaths for every 100,000 children ages 1 to 4. Today, there are fewer than 30 deaths for every 100,000 kids in that age group — more than a tenfold decrease.
Much of that decline can be attributed to the rise of childhood vaccines. (Related point: vaccinate your kids!) But mortality rates have continued to drop in recent decades, too. Across the age categories of 1 to 4, 5 to 14 and 15 to 19, mortality rates have fallen by nearly half since 1990, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data tabulated by Child Trends.
Part of that decrease is due to a drop in child homicides. As of 2008, the homicide rate for kids under age 14 stood at a near-record low 1.5 cases per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the homicide rate for teens ages 14 to 17 plummeted from 12 per 100,000 in 1993 to just 5.1 in 2008, another near-record low.
So for a kid between the ages of 5 and 14 today, the chance of premature death by any means is roughly 1 in 10,000, or 0.01 percent.
But parents typically aren't thinking about disease or general mortality when they fret over unattended kids — we're worried about all the terrible things that could theoretically happen to a child out on his own. Chief among them is the threat of being abducted or of disappearing without a trace.
The FBI has several decades of data on missing persons, and the number of missing-person reports involving minors has been at record low levels in recent years; it has fallen by 40 percent since 1997. This is more impressive when you consider that the overall U.S. population has grown, meaning that the actual rate of missing-person reports for children has declined even more than 40 percent.
But even these numbers include a lot of scenarios that parents wouldn't typically worry about when letting their kids walk to the park. For instance, among all missing-persons cases, adults and children, in 2014, roughly 96 percent were runaways — kids or adults deliberately trying to escape from their homes. In fact, only 0.1 percent of cases involved what we think of as a stereotypical kidnapping: a stranger abducting someone by force. These figures comport with a more detailed analysis of child-only abductions carried out by the Justice Department in 2002.
Another thing parents worry about when it comes to their kids is traffic. If children are left to wander on their own outside, couldn't they run out in front of a car or get hit by an irresponsible driver? In short: almost certainly not.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that, from 1993 to 2013, the number of child pedestrians struck and killed by cars fell by more than two-thirds, from more than 800 deaths to fewer than 250. (Children 14 and younger make up 5 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 15 percent of pedestrian injuries.)
The number of traffic-related pedestrian injuries in this age group fell by a similar percentage over the same period. Again, these are raw numbers, and as the population has grown over that period, the actual rate has fallen even faster.
So where does this leave us in the debate over 'free-range' children? Kids are dying less often. They're getting hit by cars less often. And they're going missing less frequently, too. The likelihood of any of these scenarios is both historically low and infinitesimally small.
But couldn't it be that kids are less prone to terrible tragedies these days because concerned parents are keeping them locked up at home and calling the cops whenever they see someone else's kid walking alone down the street? Probably not.
It's hard to say that much of the decline in mortality and abduction rates comes from stricter parenting, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University who has written about child-safety statistics, told me. When it comes to child mortality, 'crime and accidents were never that big of a deal to begin with,' Caplan said. And there are a lot of factors driving those trends downward: better safety standards for cars and better pedestrian infrastructure, for instance. Declining rates of violent crime overall also probably play a role.
Asked about the Meitivs' case, Caplan said: 'People are being persecuted for doing things that are extremely statistically safe just because other people disagree.' If it was safe enough for today's adults to play outside unsupervised when they were kids, it's even safer for children to do so now.
Christopher Ingraham is a writer and blogger for the Washington Post.
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