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Posted on Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 12:37 p.m.

Don't blame Somer Thompson's mother for her death

By Jen Eyer

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?"

Wiehl's answer:

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 She can be reached at 734-623-2577 or, or you can visit her at 301 East Liberty.



Thu, Oct 29, 2009 : 3:45 p.m.

One more point I think you might want to think about, is that Somer Thompson's mother is in complete anguish and punishing herself. What type of person actually gets on a forum and blasts her this way? Seems like some of you need to re-evaluate your compassion button. Talk about anti-social.


Thu, Oct 29, 2009 : 3:39 p.m.

I am thinking that anyone judging this poor women for her decision better hope nothing ever happens to your own children. Otherwise, you might be the one under the scope. Obviously your perfect. Have you ever looked in your own area to see how many sex offenders are near by? So, if one of them abducts your child from your backyard, are you to blame because you don't have a fence? Speaking from experience, how many sex offenders do you think you have living near by that have never been prosecuted? Be rational. We should as a society be angry with the murderer not the mother. Why is it when there is a crisis, society tends to tear down each other down rather than building each other up?

Mike S

Tue, Oct 27, 2009 : 3:34 p.m.

I agree, our perception of danger has increased due to sensationalism while actual danger is decreasing. And passing along unrealistic fears to our children is giving them an inaccurate view of the world. Bruce Schneier, a well known security guru, has a good short essay on the topic of how the human brain handles risk assessment:


Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 4:19 p.m.

Excellent column. I linked to your column from the column in Jacksonville's paper. I live in Jacksonville not far from Orange Park and in a neighborhood very similar. This was an awful story but we do need to keep some perspective. There are so many other way more likely ways for a child to be harmed. Certainly appropriate precautions need to be made but not letting your children out of the house is not one of them.

O.P. Mommie

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 11:56 a.m.

I wanted to respond to some of the postings on here about Somer Thompson. I do not live in her neighborhood, but I do live in the same city(and it's not very big). The reason her mother was not with her is because she is a single parent who has to work to support her children. If employers worked around school hours, that would be great, but they don't. She could sit at home and get welfare, but then you would just complain about her being lazy. It is surreal to see my city all over the national news for something like this, but my family is not going to live their lives in fear. Orange Park is a quiet city, where stuff like this does not happen everyday. I am just barely 5ft tall, so I could easily be overpowered by a guy, but I don't let that stop me from going out alone. And this will not stop me from letting my children go out and play. So instead of judging her mother for someone taking her child, let's try to have some compassion for a grieving mother who has lost her child. Not one person on here is perfect, so never say this will not happen to me because you never know.


Sun, Oct 25, 2009 : 4:17 p.m.

Why are people blaming the mother? I don't understand. If you ask me, the person who abducted her is to blame. Nobody asks for this. Put yourself in her shoes before you go lambasting her just because she parents differently than you do.


Sat, Oct 24, 2009 : 10:39 a.m.

I feel bad for my 5-yr-old daughter having to live in a world of peers who grow up under lock and key. Even though she will be allowed to walk to school and play outside, this misguided movement to "protect" kids is going to make our already-unfriendly society even more anti-social.


Sat, Oct 24, 2009 : 10:38 a.m.

I think it's funny how people say this world is more dangerous now than it was 30 years ago. The world hasn't changed, but how much we know about it has. Ignorance is bliss.

Mike D.

Sat, Oct 24, 2009 : 9:06 a.m.

It's interesting that nobody has mentioned the class issue here. There are rich single-income couples who have the luxury to piously claim that all good parents walk their kids to and from school every day and that any parent who doesn't stalk their kids on a Boy Scout camp-out is abusive. And there are the other 99.9% of the parents working 2-3 jobs. They are either single parents or couples struggling to make ends meet. When the choice is having a little faith in humanity that the kid can make it home to dinner vs. not having food to put on the table (or a home at all), it's no longer an ivory tower discussion. It's likely that the majority of commenters on here (myself included) have the luxury to think about this from a position of privilege. If we didn't, we'd be at work instead of commenting.


Sat, Oct 24, 2009 : 7:58 a.m.

Thank you for the perspective. I think people judge/lash out because incidents like this bring out our worst fears. We want to feel like it hasn't happened to us because we're the "good" parents. Labeling her the bad parent somehow reassures us that she deserved her fate. Of course, that poor mother didn't deserve it. None of us can protect our kids against all possible harms, and study after study shows that we put too much time and energy into warding against things that are statistically unlikely to happen, and not enough into the real problems. I agree with Patrick - more harm comes from making kids fearful of getting outside and from suffocating them so much that they cannot gain confidence and independence.

Anthony Clark

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 7:41 p.m.

I walked to school unsupervised from the time I was 6 years old (30+ years ago). So did most of my friends. We did so many things that kids just aren't allowed to do anymore because it is too "dangerous". I never thought my parents were irresponsible. I agree with the author that the perception of danger is what has increased. My heart goes out to the mother of Somer Thompson. She has suffered enough. She will second-guess herself for the rest of her life. She doesn't deserve the scorn she has received or prosecution.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 7:11 p.m.

PHILG284: I applaud you for your wise comment and observation. The mother is grieving...TOO LATE!!!! WHERE WAS SHE?


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 7:07 p.m.

NO Child should walk home from school unsupervised!!! No child should be left to the care of young siblings. The mother could have prevented this tragedy had she walked with the children! It only takes a split second for a child to go missing, as we have read about and seen lately....


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 3:17 p.m.

Great article! Increased vigilance is never going to hurt, but, there are reasonable expectations. It is too bad that cable media loves to make us think that they care about these tragic stories when all they are really hoping for is to persecute someone. Ratings seem to soar whenever they can make someone else's life suck worse than the average viewer. Judge not lest ye be judged.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 3:11 p.m.

But Phil, what are they registered *for*? Something they served their time for and have been good ever since? Did it involve a child? An adult? An 18yo having sex with his 17yo girlfriend? Peeing in public? Just having the label of "sex offender" doesn't automatically mean these people are dangerous. Unfortunately, it's too broad a brand.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 2:54 p.m.

Really, you must be joking. No it is not safe for a 7 year old to walk a mile to and from school without adult supervision...ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE ARE CLOSE TO 80 SEX OFFENDERS WITHIN A 3 MILE RADIUS OF HER HOUSE!!!!!!!!! Any parent that would allow their children to do that is not fit to parent. I'm sorry.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 2:32 p.m.

No, I wouldn't let my kids walk a mile to school at age 7. I didn't either and I lived in a "safe" neighborhood. I do feel for the mother, I was hoping it would end differently when I saw her on tv the night before.

Mike D.

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 2:05 p.m.

LOL @patrick. Great point!

Jessica Webster

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 1:50 p.m.

Excellent piece, Jen. People always rush to condemn the parents when something tragic happens to a child, and that always breaks my heart.

Mike D.

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 1:38 p.m.

Great editorial. The sensationalism and rush to judgment around this poor girl are ridiculous. I walked to school when I was 7, I rode my bike all over town when I was 10, I hitchhiked across the country when I was 17, and I never had an issue. My kids likely will do the same things, and they'll be stronger for it. And there's a chance they'll get abducted by a stranger, but it's less than the chance they'll be run down by a car or struck by lightning. Life is full of risks, and being a parent means weighing these risks logically.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 1:37 p.m.

My heart goes out to her. There will always be tragedy and hers is one of them. Whether it's abductions, cancer, car crashes or trees falling -- some families will enormous losses and it behooves us to sympathize, not to act out our own fears by demonizing them.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 1:20 p.m.

I grew up in the city of Detroit and walked to school in a neighborhood where as I approached high school age, the local Johns would mistake me for a hooker. Nothing bad ever happened to me except for the normal bad things any kid might experience. Once I was beaten up by another kid from my school and once a couple of boys threw rocks at me and a friend as we walked by their house. That anyone living in a very suburban low crime area would be considered negligent by anyone really makes me wonder. People are a little disconnected with reality sometimes and always quick to judge other people's parenting decisions. But seriously people, allowing your child to walk to school, even in a bad neighborhood, may be safer than driving them (although of course, driving kids to school is not a bad or dangerous decision either).

Martin Berg

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 1:17 p.m.

Its not a blame game just change. Don't make excuses, watch your kids where ever they are. Even if they are teenagers, they can still be overwhelmed and taken by a full size adult. The abuductions will still happen but you will be there to fight for your kids and not wondering where they are at. Parent your kids, they can't raise themselves.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 12:36 p.m.

The risk of being brutally murdered by a madman is an order of magnitude lower than the risk of becoming obese and getting diabetes because your parents drive you everywhere and don't let you play outside except on special occasions.


Fri, Oct 23, 2009 : 12:12 p.m.

It's absolutely safe in my neighborhood, as in the VAST VAST majority of every other neighborhood too. My children begin walking to kindergarten alone at age 5. By 7 or 8, they've obtained so much experience, maturity, common sense, and realization of what's going on around them, that they get to roam our entire neighborhood alone... by 11 or 12? The city. And they'll be just fine. They have a higher risk of dying by falling in the bathtub than by stranger abduction. I refuse to live in fear, and I refuse to let my children live in fear. Could you imagine what a beautiful world it would be if more children said "hello" to strangers instead of cowering in fear of them?