It's Not An Epidemic

It seems like every time I turn on the TV, there’s another story about a child lost, ripped from the safety of home and family into the horrors inflicted by untoward strangers. Our hearts bleed for these families, whose lives are in shambles and colored by terror, and our souls ache for the child who may be undergoing unspeakable acts of abuse.

The more stories the media presents, the tighter we grip the hands of our small children and the fewer freedoms we allow our older children. The world simply isn’t safe; there are Bad People out there, just waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on the most precious gifts we have.

Are there really more societal rejects out there preying on our children? Or are we just hearing more about it, the media both presenting the facts in hopes of finding these kids, and sensationalizing the stories?

According to Newsweek magazine, the July 29, 2002 issue, the incidence of stranger abduction has remained fairly consistent over the last 10 years.

I think we’re just hearing about it more often, and mostly thanks to the efforts of John Walsh.

That’s just my opinion, though.

Just a little over 19 years ago, The Boy was an almost-victim of kidnapping. Had I been a more timid person, or less alert, it could have been accomplished fact. I stood there, in a public library, the boy in a stroller right next to me, with my attention riveted to a line of books I was considering borrowing.

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and it took a moment for my brain to register that the stroller containing my son was the source of distraction. My two month old son was rolling away from me, pushed by a woman I had never seen before.

Now, in any other locality, she could have gotten away with it, had she chosen to run. But this was on the second story (of a building located right next to the police station) and the only ways down were the escalator, and the elevator. And she wasn’t running, she simply pushed the stroller along, as if stealing someone else’s child were an everyday, and perfectly acceptable, occurrence.

It was not acceptable, not on any reasonable level, of course. She got perhaps five feet before my brain engaged and my body followed suit (being so many years younger, the neurons fired much more quickly back then.) I reached for her shoulder with my right hand, and punched her square in the face with my left.

I can still see the look of total surprise on her face, eyes wide and focused on the fist that was going to connect with her cheek, knowing there was nothing she could do to stop it. I will never forget that look. At the time I think I believed it to be surprise that she had been caught so quickly; later I came to understand that she was surprised, period. She did not expect to be stopped, not ever.

The woman went down in a bloody heap; I snatched my son up and other library patrons came running. The Boy was perfectly all right, but I held him close enough to make him cry, and I stood there and watched her bleed all over the loop-knit carpet of the library floor. There were no sirens to be heard; police were there within two minutes, on foot, sprinting up the escalator.

I explained my version; witnesses explained what they had seen. The woman was taken downstairs on a gurney via the elevator, and I followed a few minutes later, my son now asleep in his stroller, his tiny lips pursed and sucking on an imaginary bottle. We were both taken to the hospital; she went to surgery and I went to x-ray to have my hand examined.

An hour later I was at the police station, hand in a cast, filing a report; my son was treated to his first taste of root beer, dribbled onto his tongue from a straw held by a young police officer. My head was spinning – I had no clue what I was supposed to do, if there was any one I needed to call (other than the Spouse Thingy), how was I going to pay the hospital bill? We were beyond broke in those days, living on $400 a month, paying rent of $275. I had just put a woman in the hospital, her cheek splintered in several places, my own thumb broken.

I was near tears. We couldn’t afford the cast wrapped around my hand. We couldn’t afford surgery on someone else. We couldn’t afford a lawyer. We could barely afford the 10 cent boxes of generic macaroni and cheese we subsisted on.

There would be no medical bill. No lawyers fees. Only a request for patience and understanding. The woman’s husband would pay for everything; the state would bring her up on charges, to which she would plead guilty, and she would spend time not in prison, but in a state mental facility.

The District Attorney wanted to show me why he agreed to those terms, wanted to show me why I should agree to them as well, even though I had no real say in it.

He showed me a photograph of a baby boy, about 3 months old, who could have been my son’s twin. A baby boy who died when he was 4 months old.

A baby boy a mother thought she was bringing home.

My son, The Boy, is 19 years old now. He is strong and healthy, and I hope happy. The woman who tried to take him, who caught a glimpse of him and thought he was her own child and simply was going to take him home, was sentenced to 10 years, but I don’t know how many years she was actually there. I never pursued the matter after that, but I think about her often, wondering if she’s okay now, if her family is okay. I wonder sometimes if she came to grips with her loss, and if she ever had more children. I wonder if she’s healthy, and if she’s happy.

And I hope that she is.

My son’s almost-victim status never made it into the news. I never spoke with a television reporter, and I never saw mention of it in the newspaper. All those years ago kidnappings were kept quiet; let’s not scare the public. Let’s make them feel safe.

Children have always been victims. The difference is, now we know. Now we can work to better protect them. Which is what, I think, John Walsh intended. The more we know, the more power we have to protect our children, so that they can grow up strong and healthy, and if we’re lucky, happy.

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