However, I want to also combat myths about keeping kids safe.
A lot of my work involves helping people understand who it is that we need to protect children from. There are a lot of myths out there about who harms children. The most persistent is probably one that both you and I were taught as kids (and you're going to have to hold your outrage here, so I can explain).
That myth is stranger danger.
I know! And trust me, it IS appropriate to teach your children healthy caution around strangers. It is wise to teach your children not to go with strangers, and to yell like hell if a stranger approaches them or makes them uncomfortable.
It is also important to know, however, that 90% of the abuse that children experience comes from someone they know (Finkelhor, D. (2012). Characteristics of Crimes against Juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center and Whealin, J. (2007-05-22). “Child Sexual Abuse”. National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, US Department of Veterans Affairs.) Yep, that sucks, but that's the reality. You, your family, or other adults you trust are most likely to hurt your kids.
This brings me to the current myth I want to tackle. I've seen memes that say something like "your child is 17 million percent more likely to be trafficked than to get Covid. And if they are trafficked, no one can identify them because they are wearing a mask, and the trafficker can move around freely with your child and no one will stop them. Look at Elizabeth Smart and what happened to her!"
There is a reason why these kinds of warnings have not been produced by the organizations most involved in combating child trafficking. I promise you its not because we have some wide-ranging conspiracy to actually promote the trafficking of children (we all could and would rather do other things if child exploitation was solved.)
It's because the stats just don't hold up.
But the memes are deceptive, right? They poke so closely to our hearts and strike at the legitimate fears we all have of children disappearing into the vast unknown, snatched by a terrible stranger dead-set on doing unspeakable acts to vulnerable kids.
This is why I want to talk through this on my blog rather than confront individuals posting this misinformation. The people whom I have seen posting are well-intentioned, good-hearted folks whom I know through personal experience have kids best interests at heart, and are reposting memes because they want to keep kids safe.
So let's piece these claims apart to make wise and informed choices.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics in their latest report (Children and Covid-19: State-Level Data Report, issued July 30, 2020, full report available here), approximately 338, 982 children have cumulatively tested positive for Covid-19, with 43 states reporting. It should be noted that not all states and districts within states provided data, and states varied in their definition of child with some states reporting on children between the ages of 1-14, while others reported on ages 0-17, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Despite those limitations, this is a relatively comprehensive, if a bit conservative, data report. It is also true that the hospitalization rates (between .6 and 8.9% of Covid-19 related hospitalizations) and death rates (between 0 and .3% of children diagnosed with Covid-19) of children are below those of adults.
It's more difficult to estimate the numbers of children in the US who have been victimized by trafficking, however, it is estimated that about 300,000 children a year are "at risk" for exploitation in the US. This has translated into somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 children actual reports of child trafficking in the US annually (about 5,000 of those being sexual exploitation, the rest a combination of other forms of trafficking such as forced labour, servitude, etc.) These statistics have been pulled from the Polaris Project, UNICEF USA, and the US Department of Justice.
Save the Children, Love 146, Exodus Road, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also tell us important factors about the children who are "at risk" for and have experienced child trafficking: they are overwhelming involved in the child welfare system, are in foster care, have previously experienced sexual abuse, have run away and/or living in a home with the lowest socio-economic status. They are most likely to be either entered into trafficking by a parent or caregiver (young children), or lured into trafficking by someone local who engages them in a relationship then coerces and threatens them into exploitation (adolescents). Most trafficking happens while the child remains in their home environment. To quote Love 146: "In reality, few trafficked children are swept off the street and forced into white vans. Instead, they’re pulled into a life by traffickers that they may not have words for. Sometimes they continue going to school, living at home, and participating in extracurricular activities – even while they are being trafficked."
The cause of trafficking is traffickers. But the risk factors are the vulnerabilities that traffickers exploit. Its horrible, and this is absolutely a cause to rally behind (and I do), support the organizations actively fighting it, and educate ourselves and others about the devastating impact of trafficking.
However, let's not conflate this with the entirely separate and basically unrelated issue of Covid 19. Your child, especially if your home is middle-income without a history of violence or involvement in the child welfare or justice system, is much more likely to be diagnosed with Covid than become a victim of trafficking. Wearing or not wearing a mask isn't going to change your child's risk for exploitation.
But what about Elizabeth Smart??
Elizabeth Smart was a victim of kidnapping and not trafficking, and a victim of sexual abuse by her kidnappers. According to both the Polly Klaas Foundation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, non-family abductions make up less than 1% of kidnappings annually. Again, the majority of kidnapping cases are conducted by family members. Distinguishing trafficking from kidnapping is important because they are separate crimes (oh, and trafficking has only been illegal in the US since the year 2000.)
Elizabeth Smart's kidnappers employed many of the same coercive tactics that keep trafficking victims bound to their traffickers (the reasons why she didn't just "run away" when she "had the chance" - the crap asked by doubters and jerks all over after her rescue, when it was revealed her kidnappers had taken her out in public). They did dress her in a veil, wig and sunglasses in public, however, Ms. Smart has discussed at length that what kept her in bondage to her kidnappers was not what she wore, but the threats, torture and intimidation (references located in part here.) Despite the wig and veil, (which was NOT given to her by her parents, as I think the meme infers since it talks about her not being able to be seen due to these, just like the mask you would have your kids wear) she WAS eventually recognized when she was out in public, along with her captor.
Child trafficking and child kidnapping are serious issues. Covid and your child's health is a serious issue. However, let's be smart in our conversations about both of these, and not allow drama and fear related to one issue cloud our judgement on the other. No matter what you choose about having your child wear a mask, don't allow an inflammatory meme about "potentially being a victim of trafficking or ending up as the next Elizabeth Smart" be a part of your decision-making.
If you want to protect your children from trafficking, there are far more effective ways to do so than keeping a mask off your kids' face, like maintaining a safe and loving home, educating yourself about the risk factors for trafficking, and engaging in appropriate vigilance with your family and others your child comes into contact with. If you want to protect your child from Covid, have them wear a mask, teach them to keep their hands away from their face, wash them often, and engage in consistent social distancing.
May all kids stay safe from all things (ok, I know that sounds like "may the odds ever be in your favour" but I really don't mean it like that! You can actually keep your kids safe! Not from everything, but from a lot.)