Following the tragic death of Carlie Brucia in February, we have seen yet another legislative effort to try and prevent a similar fate befalling other children. Whilst the prevention of child abduction and murder is a noble cause, the legislation being thrown at the issue is often misguided, as it fails to address the real problems causing such sad incidents to occur. Like Megan’s Law, the proposed Carlie’s Law is unlikely to prevent abductions from occurring, whilst likely imposing a double jeopardy on law breakers. Furthermore, it totally overlooks the fact that stranger abductions are extremely rare. In order to prevent violent acts against children, society needs to face the fact that an overwhelming percentage of such violence is perpetrated by the family and friends of the child, not strangers.
In 1994, a convicted child molester who had moved in across the street from seven-year old Megan Kanka, abducted, raped and killed her. A public outrage followed, with many people shocked in disbelief that such a dangerous person had been allowed into a neighborhood with nobody knowing about it. Following a public campaign by the parents of the girl, legislation was adopted that mandated public information about the whereabouts of convicted child molesters. Since then, similar legislation has been adopted in every state in the country.
There are several problems with these Megan’s Laws. Firstly, such legislation is discriminatory. Secondly, such treatment amounts to a second punishment on a criminal. Thirdly, such legislation conveniently ignores the fact that the majority of child sexual abuse takes place at the hands of family and friends, not strangers.
In a modern civil society, a convicted criminal who has been released from prison is technically considered to have already paid the penalty for his crime. Theoretically, therefore, he ought to be allowed to continue with his life without being branded or ostracized by society. A law forcing him, therefore, to announce his location so that communities where he wants to live can be informed about his criminal past, is totally discriminatory, if not unconstitutional.
What other class of lawbreaker must face this public scrutiny and humiliation? Many other potentially dangerous ex-convicts are also released into society with no such notification requirement. If society wishes for the location of child molesters to be known, why does it not insist that the whereabouts of murderers, [adult] rapists, and other violent criminals with a higher rate of recidivism also be made known public?
Whilst there are 0.0017 violent stranger child abductions per year per 1,000 children, according to United States Department of Justice statistics for property crimes in 2002, there was a burglary rate of 27.7, a theft rate of 122.3 and an auto theft rate of 9.
In a press release in November 2003, the BJS reported that whilst criminals convicted of sex crimes released in 1994 reoffended 43% of the time, only “an estimated 3.3 percent of the 4,300 released child molesters were rearrested for another sex crime against a child within 3 years.” So not only is stranger child abuse extremely uncommon, the offenders tend not to reoffend.
The Myth of Rampant Stranger Abductions
Any belief that such laws will prevent child abductions or murders is ludicrous. In a study entitled National Center for Health Statistics, 255 children aged one through nineteen died from influenza and pneumonia, 452 died from heart disease, 1,921 committed suicide and 11,560 died of accidental injuries. In other words, a child was 2 times more likely to die of influenza or pneumonia, 4 times more likely to die of heart disease, 17 times more likely to commit suicide and 100 times more likely to die of an accidental injury than to become a victim of a ‘stereotypical type’ of abduction. Whilst the odds of a child being ‘stereotypically’ abducted are 1 in 610,000, the odds of dying in an airplane crash in any given year are 1 in 310,000 (two times more likely), the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 240,000 (2.5 times more likely) and the odds of a pedestrian being killed by an automobile are 1 in 47,000 (13 times more likely).
These statistics show us two things. Firstly, if we are really serious about stopping child abductions, we need to examine the most common group of perpetrators: family members. Of the 69,000 child abductions that occurred in 1999, 82% were perpetrated by family members. Another 11.3% were committed by friends of the family or other people well known to the children. It seems apparent then, that measures need to be taken to prevent family abduction, which is, by far, a more serious problem than stranger abduction.
Secondly, we can see quite clearly that there are a number of causes of death amongst children far more serious than stranger abductions. The rate of suicides amongst children is 16.7 times higher than the rate of stranger abductions. Of violent deaths amongst children, stranger abductions acount for only 4.3% of the total. Whilst prevention of abductions and the reduction of childhood mortality at the hands of strangers is desirable, addressing more common causes of death is more urgently needed. Exploring the reasons for teenage suicide and finding ways to prevent it, preventing other violent deaths amongst children and preventing tragic accidents from occuring are more effective ways to protect children than the imposition of discriminatory legislation such as Megan’s Law.
The Myth of Stranger Sexual Abuse
Society has become so fixated on stranger abductions and the myth of child abuse happening at the hands of strangers that it has entirely overlooked the unpleasant truth: the vast majority of child sexual abuse is at the hands of family members and friends. It appears that it is easier for society to find a scapegoat to blame for the abuse of children rather than to examine why children are abused in such epidemic numbers by their own families.
Yet the statistics once again entirely debunk the myth. In a July 2000 study by the NCJJ entitled Sexual Assault of Children as Reported to Law Enforcement, 34.2% of child sex offenders were family members and 58.7% were acquaintances, while only 7% of child sexual abuse was perpetrated by strangers. Amongst younger victims, the percentage of family perpetrators was even higher. In 48.6% of cases involving victims between zero and five years of age, the perpetrator was a family member, while it was 42.4% for victims between the ages of six and eleven. The percentage of perpetrators that were strangers for these age ranges was 3.1% and 4.7%, respectively.
To stop at the incidence of child sexual abuse does not even reveal the total extent of child abuse in the United States. Child Help USA compiled data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services in September 2003. It discovered that of all child abuse that occurred in 2001, only 10% was sexual abuse. The leading forms of abuse were neglect (59%), which included medical neglect, and physical abuse (19%). 81% of all abusers were the child’s parents. 59% of the abusers were females.
The weight of the evidence suggests overwhelmingly that the scourge of child abuse starts in the home. Only when society begins to ask itself the painful question of why this abuse is so prevalent and why families, which ought to be safe havens for children, are so violent towards them, will it be able to overcome this epidemic of violence. It is time for us all to stop looking for scapegoats and start looking in the mirror.