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Kids, parks & paranoia: Get a grip, America

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A couple of weeks ago, the Debra Harrell story made national headlines. Harrell was arrested in North Augusta, S.C., and charged with a felony for letting her daughter, 9, play at a park while Harrell worked a shift at a local McDonald's.

Now, it has happened again, in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where a mother was charged with child neglect after letting her son go to a park by himself.

The mother told WPTV-TV that the officer who arrested her “kept going over that there's pedophiles and this and that and basically the park wasn't safe and he shouldn't be there alone.”

That's just absurd. But the paranoia on display also was a factor in the Harrell case. The original report from WJBF-TV quoted and left unchallenged an assertion from a local woman (her credentials were apparently that she happened to be at the park while the news crew was recording) that kids left by themselves at public parks are at risk of being snatched by strangers.

There isn't much evidence to support such fears.

The most recent study on abducted kids was a 2002 study on children abducted in 1999. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the study found about 200,000 abductions that year. Of those, 58,200 were “non-family abductions.”

But the vast, vast majority of those kids were abducted by friends, acquaintances or boyfriends. Just 115 fit the “stranger swipes kid from public space” scenario that Harrell's critics fear.

Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids points to another study that found that just 3 percent of homicides of children under age 5 committed between 1976 and 2005 were committed by strangers.

Even odder, we've become increasingly paranoid just as violent crime, sex crimes and crimes against children are all in rapid decline and are now at historic lows.

I couldn't even begin to count the number of times I ventured out by myself on my bike as a kid. It was pretty close to every day.

At times, I'd end up several miles from home.

If my parents had been arrested and charged every time, they'd have been serving life sentences for repeat offenses by the time I turned 10.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug wars and civil liberties for The Washington Post.

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