Don't blame Somer Thompson's mother for her death
If you've tuned into the news at all this week, you've probably heard about Somer Thompson, the 7-year-old Florida girl who disappeared on her way home from school Monday and whose body was found in a garbage dump on Wednesday.
News talk shows and the mommy blogosphere are raining down judgment on Somer's mother, who let her children walk the mile to and from school with schoolmates. (Somer's parents are getting divorced, and her father lives in another state.)
However, from the news accounts I've read, it sounds like it was not unusual in Somer's community for children to walk to school without adults. It's not like this mother was being willfully negligent. It seemed to be reasonably safe to allow children to walk to school unassisted in that community.
As parents, isn't that all we can do — take reasonable precautions to keep our children safe?
After all, as tragic as each case is, in a country with 70 million children, there are only about 40 cases per year of children being abducted and murdered by complete strangers.
Or are we responsible for protecting our children from every random, freak occurrence that can befall them? There are more than 2,000 children who die each year in vehicle accidents. Even if our kids are properly restrained, and we practice defensive driving, a distracted or drunk driver can still smash into us. It can and does happen, but can you imagine the parents of a child killed by a drunk driver being blamed for driving with their child on the wrong road at the wrong time?
That is exactly what is happening with Somer's mom, and my heart goes out to her. We don't know the details of her murder yet, but by all accounts Somer just seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's enough for some parents to stand in judgment. Here's one example. Fox News legal analyst Lis Wiehl posted a short piece yesterday explaining why she doesn't let her 12-year-old daughter walk home from school in their "tree-lined suburban community."
Now, I'm not going to judge her decision; I don't live in her community, so I can't say what is reasonably safe there. However, I do take issue with her premise. Wiehl writes that last year, when she and her daughter argued on the issue, her daughter asked: "but mom, you always walked to and from school when you were growing up...why can't I?"
Because times have changed, my dear. Times have changed.
Remember in the "old days" when it was rare to see a child's face on the back of a milk carton with the caption "Have You Seen Me?".....these days, milk cartons are almost obsolete and "Have you Seen Me" signs come at us every day on television, radio, and the Internet. -- And it's not just walking home from school that can be dangerous: children are sometimes not safe even in their own beds (remember Elizabeth Smart?).
No, times actually haven't changed. Crimes against children are falling, and according to U.S. Department of Justice Data, "stereotypical kidnappings do not appear to be any more frequent in 1999 than in 1988." The vast majority of those "Have you seen me?" signs are children who were taken by family members in custody battles.
Children are at least as safe as they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. It's our perception of their safety that has changed, and the media is largely to blame. Cases like Somer's get replayed over and over on the news, and it's hard not to let it make you fearful.
In my neighborhood, it would not be unreasonable for kids to walk to school unsupervised. The school is tucked back in the neighborhood, and there are always lots of people out walking dogs or jogging, and a steady stream of parents either walking or driving their kids to school along the main route. It would be nearly impossible to snatch a child without being seen, and just as difficult to make a quick getaway, due to the winding nature of the streets. There are no registered sex offenders here.
It's just as safe as 15 years ago, when one very responsible person I know used to let his 5-year-old daughter walk the half-mile route from school to after-care, alone. There are lots of neighborhoods like this across Ann Arbor, and yet it's rare to see kids walking without their parents.
Using the car crash analogy again, what if every case of a child dying in a car crash got the same level of attention? Would you become so fearful that you would stop driving? How would that affect your life?
A commenter on Lis Wiehl's article shows how she lets the media coverage of cases like Somer's affect her life. She wrote:
We never give a preditor a moments chance to act near our boys. We are there, (when we would rather be in the house) at the bus stop at 6:45am, we are there at 2:00 when they are getting off that bus. AT THE BUS, not 500 yards away, I know it would only take a second for some one to jerk my child and be gone in a vehicle and I would not be able to do any thing. I am RIGHT THERE. When they go to public restrooms, we are right there, if their Dad is there he goes with them, they are 12 & 9, if it is me, I stand outside the door. You can NOT be too careful. My boys never get to ride their bikes and play ball unless their father or I are out side. It is just the reality of our world. You must parent, and sometimes it can be inconvenient, but you must.
So people who let their kids to walk to school unsupervised are just lazy, and we should all put our kids under lockdown. Harsh.
This commenter, unfortunately, is not the exception. I've read many stories about this case in the past couple of days, and she is in the vocal majority.
Whether Somer's mother has been influenced by the "parent police," or whether it's just a natural reaction, she told ABC News that she feels guilty about her daughter's death.
Thompson said today that she has been wracked by feelings of guilt and responsibility for being at work when her youngest daughter disappeared.
"I feel responsible," she said. " If I could have just, I don't know, left work or something and been able to pick her up, this wouldn't have happened."
As if she isn't suffering enough. The blame game has to stop.
Jen Eyer is on the Community Team at AnnArbor.com. She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit her at 301 East Liberty.