Half-True Crime: Why the Stranger-Danger Panic of the '80s Took Hold and Refuses to Let Go

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Half-True Crime: Why the Stranger-Danger Panic of the '80s Took Hold and Refuses to Let Go

Adam Walsh, 6, was abducted at a Sears; two weeks later, his head was found in a drainage canal. Yusuf Bell, 9, never completed the errand he was running for his neighbor; two weeks later his body was found at an abandoned school. Johnny Gosch, 12, went missing while delivering newspapers in his neighborhood. He was never found.

All of these stories are real, all of them garnered national attention in the United States, and all of them scared the shit out of people during the early 1980s. It was a time when there appeared to be a growing crisis of child abduction that started gaining traction in the previous decade with other high-profile nonfiction horror stories of missing children (including those of six-year-old Etan Patz, who disappeared in 1979, and Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped in 1972 only to escape in 1980).

The fear of strangers had a vise-like grip on the United States for much of the early ‘80s—it loosened as the decade went on but its handprint remains visible on our culture even today via legislation and, especially, fringe conspiracy theorists whose mission is very much aligned with a tradition made possible by the inflating of statistics and scapegoating of various groups of citizens, all in the service of protecting our children. “The fear that organized conspiracies of deviants exploit children is central to contemporary concerns about threats to children,” is a sentence that could have been written yesterday to describe QAnon; it appears in sociologist Joel Best’s book Threatened Children, which was published in 1990.

“A similar discourse swirls around QAnon today as was seen in the late 1970s/early 1980s,” Dr. Paul Renfro, who teaches history at Florida State University and this year published the book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State, told me via Zoom recently. “There are similar structural factors that one can identify whether it’s a flagging economy or loss of faith in government institutions or anxieties concerning race and racism. These contributed in part to the rise of Ronald Reagan and are present today.”

To be a child in the early ‘80s was to be acutely aware of the possibility that you might be decapitated. The can’t-unsee-able murder of Adam Walsh was made further indelible by a TV movie that aired in 1983 to a reported audience of 38 million people. In my household, we referred to Walsh by his first name, as did the title of his TV movie, Adam. Looking back, it strikes me that Adam was the first mononymic icon I’d encounter. Before there was Madonna or Cher, there was Adam. He was everything I did not want to be: kidnapped and dead.

Being highly attuned to pop culture meant that I was bombarded with stories about child abduction. Elements of the Patz case were woven into the fictional storyline of the 1983 film and eventual cable mainstay Without a Trace (though at least that kid got a happy ending). Bell’s story, as well as that of more than 20 other kids who disappeared in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981, factored into the 1985 TV movie Atlanta Child Murders. Stayner got his own TV movie biopic, a two-night affair that aired in 1989 titled I Know My First Name Is Steven.

Interspersed were entirely fictional accounts: The anti-hitchhiking Afterschool Special called Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy; anti-stranger messaging tacked onto the end of cartoons like G.I. Joe, Jem, and M.A.S.K.; a Welcome to Pooh Corner episode devoted to the perils of strangers; The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers in book and animated episode form; multiple episodes of Diff’rent Strokes that depicted molestation and abduction.

Missing children appeared on milk cartons. There were board games like Strangers and Dangers, PSAs by McGruff the crime dog (whose gravely voice did nothing to assuage my anxiety), school assemblies featuring puppets and robots. Books were published for parents to read with their children—Laura M. Huchton’s 1985 guide Protect Your Child, for example, features a 50-question survey and a first chapter titled “There Is No Such Thing as Overprotection.”

A sampling of the Protect Your Child survey Image:Protect Your Child

The warnings were relentless and for a long stretch of my childhood, I feared leaving my house for any period of time. My bus stop was less than a block away from my house and I was terrified to make the trek. I attempted to time my arrival with the bus’s so as to minimize the window in which someone could drive by and stuff me into their car. I worried about having to bite, scratch, and kick for my life. I never ended up getting anywhere close to it, but I remained fascinated by the potential of my demise. This intoxicating fear campaign primed my love of horror movies and it reminded ‘80s children routinely how precious they were. The world, it seemed, was full of people who wanted to own you.

I had no concept of trafficking or sex crimes as a small child. All I understood was that people wanted to steal other people’s kids. My conception of how and why kids were taken dovetailed with the 1985 two-part Diff’rent Strokes arc, in which a literal red-headed stepbrother Sam (played by Danny Cooksey) was abducted by a man in a grocery store in a desperate attempt to fill the void left by his dead son. I wondered what motivated the sitcom to take on such a bleak subject, so I reached out to Richard Gurman, who wrote “Sam’s Missing Part 2.”

“It was in the ether,” he told me by phone, explaining the Diff’rent Strokes was routinely topical. “I think because we were at Norman Lear’s company and it was de rigueur to tackle issues, I have a feeling it was generated from the company, if not the network. At that time, there was an overlap between issues and popularity. I think they genuinely cared about the issue, but I don’t think they would shy away from anything back then.”

Gurman’s memory of writing the episode 35 years ago was understandably hazy, but he said he remembered consulting with the LAPD in order to integrate proper messaging. (The episode includes a police officer using a ventriloquist dummy to preach Stranger Danger to children.) I told him how much this episode scared me and asked him if that was his objective.

“I guess to raise consciousness, sure,” he said. “You wanted to scare kids into thinking that an adult doesn’t need help [finding their dog, etc.].”

Mission accomplished.

In 1986, the classroom-distributed periodical for kids Weekly Reader found in a poll that Stranger Danger and the threat of nuclear war were among the biggest concerns of kids in Grades 2 through 6. “I think we have scared kids too much,” Weekly Reader’s editorial director and psychologist Dr. Lynell Johnson said in a United Press International report on the survey. He was far from the only one to notice just how shook contemporary children were. In a 1986 Chicago Tribune report on Stranger Danger, a grandmother of two named Dolores Ringle observed, “We have done such a good job of scaring kids that we’ve given them a warped view of the world.” She recounted an experience in which an 11-year-old she sat across from in an airplane refused to speak to her since she was a stranger. “There’s something wrong when we make children so terrified that they can’t evaluate the risk in an everyday situation.”

But how and why did we get to a point where people thought it was right and good to instill children with fear? In addition to the shocking reports of actual kidnappings with tragic endings was a pervasive belief that abductions were skyrocketing. In an article that first ran in The Denver Post and would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize, journalists Diana Griego and Louis Kilzer reported that while advocates routinely warned that 1.5 million children were disappearing each year with 50,000 of them being abducted by strangers, the actual figures were much, much lower.

“The FBI reports that it had 67 cases of children kidnaped by strangers in 1984. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that it has firm records on 142 cases,” they wrote. What helped inflate the number was that runaways were often lumped into statistics about missing children—as many as 95 percent of children reported missing were runaways, and most of that group returned home within three days. This return rate remained high well into the next century—in 2012, Reuters published a piece saying that 99 percent of children considered missing make it home alive.

Dr. Karen Ann Joe Laidler, now a professor at the University of Hong Kong and the director of the university’s Centre for Criminology, was a research fellow at the state attorney general’s office in the ‘80s, where she saw firsthand the disparity of claims regarding the high number of missing children versus the actual data based on reports, field work, and interviews to which she was privy. She would eventually title her dissertation “Milk carton madness: The heart of the missing children’s crisis.”

“In the early 1980s, Reagan took on the presidency, and much of his campaign was to a) rebuild and strengthen the American family, and b) get tough on crime,” she wrote to me in an email. “As part of this push… there were many calls to ‘save the children’ in legislative discussions.”

“Between 1981 and 1985, federal hearings exposed the supposedly intertwined issues of child pornography and pedophilia, serial murder, and missing children,” wrote Philip Jenkins in his 1998 book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. He cited John Walsh, the father of Adam Walsh who would eventually become the host of America’s Most Wanted and help found the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), as having claimed in 1984 during a Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing that every hour, 205 children in the U.S. were reported missing (that’s almost 1.8 million a year).

Inflated numbers helped make this story what it was. In Best’s book, he recounts NCMEC president Ellis E. Meredith’s response to the Denver Post’s expose during a congressional hearing: “I don’t think anything has surprised me more than this preoccupation with numbers and the… ‘only 67 or only 68 or only 69.’ …These are little helpless citizens of this country being held hostage, scared to death, totally unable to take care of themselves, being held hostage by terrorists. What is it with the ‘only,’ sir?” The year after the Post piece, NCMEC released more even data that didn’t square with FBI numbers. Interestingly, years later, a 2006 Wall Street Journal investigation into a claim touted by NCMEC that child sex abuse material generated $20 billion in revenue in 2004 (for some perspective, that’s about a fifth of what all pornography was said to have generated in 2006) failed to turn up proof of that number. In 2011, Congress heard false numbers regarding sex trafficking (not from NCMEC), and an article on Insider from September of this year found a great disparity in NCMEC’s claims that one in six runaway children are “likely victims of child sex trafficking” (that would be about 4,398 children per year) versus the Human Trafficking Institute’s 2019 report stating there were 72 new federal cases involving child sex trafficking that year. There’s no question that these crimes constitute societal problems—they do—but the extent of each problem (and whether we can take numbers of federally funded organizations at face value) remains an open question.

Renfro’s book traces Stranger Danger’s impact to today’s carceral state via legislation. It started with the 1982 Missing Children’s Act, signed by Reagan and lobbied for by John and Revé Walsh, which formed a database of missing children. After that were the Clinton-signed Wetterling Act, federal three strikes law, and Megan’s Law, which imposed federal mandates on sex offender registries and community notification. And then there was the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, which among its features, authorized indefinite incarceration of sex offenders even after the completion of their prison sentences. Renfro writes in Stranger Danger: “Even though no evidence existed to indicate that Adam Walsh had been sexually abused following his kidnapping, the 2006 law used the boy’s name and image to intensify the punishments levied against convicted sex offenders.”

“This Stranger Danger idea, is still very much around us,” Renfro told me. “It’s evidenced in people still looking to sex offender registries to find who might be threatening their home, even though family members and acquaintances are far more likely than so-called strangers or outsiders to harm children.” Renfro argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed that those registries have no discernible impact on crimes.

The aforementioned Joel Best is a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware and perhaps best known for his work dispelling the myth of Halloween sadism (that is, that people are poisoning candy to injure Trick or Treaters). He also wrote the 1990 book Threatened Children, and on a recent Zoom call, theorized that our persistent crusade to save our children is a product of our ultimate helplessness.

“We take our anxieties about the future and we translate them into efforts to protect children,” he said. “We have this sense that the future is uncertain. Children are the walking, talking future. There is a sense of powerlessness and a sense of fear. We seize on protecting children as a way of, ‘We can do this.’”

Best’s book interprets the Stranger Danger panic as a social problem from a constructivist perspective, by observing how claims about said problem are distributed. “When people want to make a social problem, they take a terrible example—Adam Walsh—and then they give the problem a name [missing children],” he said. He told me that he believes the reason why people held onto the belief that strangers were such a threat to children, despite award-winning journalism that proved otherwise was simple: “The answer is: Adam Walsh.”

Walsh, and many of the other cases mentioned in this piece, constitute nightmare scenarios for parents. One could argue that because one instance of kidnapping is too much, we should put all of our societal might into ensuring that no child ever gets taken again. I wonder if the fear instilled in me, in fact, did save my life.

At some point before puberty, I found myself in a situation that I felt like my entire life had led up to. I was riding my bike alone in my neighborhood. The street I was riding on ended at the perpendicular street I was approaching, creating a T shape. Where the streets met, a man stood in front of the driver’s side door to a car. Though I’d only realize it in retrospect, he looked like Giorgio Moroder on his From Here to Eternity album cover, dark sunglasses, and dripping swarthy Italian essence. “Hey kid, come here,” he said to me. I can’t remember if he told me that he wanted to tell me something or show me something because I started to panic immediately. I picked up my pace, rode my bike through the yard of the house in which the car he stood near was parked and into the alley that separated that street from the one I lived on. I was practically hyperventilating after riding a block home, recounting the story of what I was certain was my brush with death to my mother, who had been sitting outside and was perplexed at my meltdown. I never saw that guy again. Crisis averted.

Quantifying how much Stranger Danger helped would be impossible; what is not impossible is qualifying the other threats to children that impact at a far higher rate. As Best states it plainly in Threatened Children: “A society which is mobilized to keep child molesters, kidnappers, and Satanists way from innocent children is not necessarily prepared to protect children from ignorance, poverty, and ill health.”

“I think people do want to make change and they want to help and they are incensed at these problems—they’re just mad at the wrong problems,” Dr. Aimee Wodda, a professor at Pacific University and author of the 2018 paper “Stranger Danger!,” which ran in the Journal of Family Strengths. Like many scholars, Wodda views the Stranger Danger movement of the ‘80s as a moral panic.

While researching Stranger Danger, I too came to agree that its position in ‘80s culture and enduring echoes constitute a moral panic—an outsized response that renders an issue very much grounded in reality into a fantastical epidemic. Many authors, including Wodda and Renfro see the underlying fear as an attack on the white, heteronormative family—this becomes especially clear when the media response to missing white boys is contrasted to the far more suspicious reading of the murders in Atlanta in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, in which the Black victims were often presented as hustlers or sex workers.

But how do we square the claims by informed and well-read academics with reports that child sex abuse imagery is a ballooning problem? Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 70 million reports of images, videos, and other material concerning child sex abuse, about a 50 percent increase from the preceding year.

It would then seem that instead of making too big of a deal regarding the threats to children, we haven’t made a big enough deal. Academics decades ago rolled their eyes at the notion of large-scale sex rings that were systematically abusing children and documenting said abuse—and there was little data to suggest that was occurring well into the ‘90s. But if the proliferation of child sex abuse material online is at the epidemic levels that recent reports have suggested (with the internet facilitating its creators and users to create what are effectively rings), it seems as though the sky has finally fallen. There are caveats to the numbers most recently reported by the Times, including that the 70 million figure refers to reports, not discrete images (thus the same image could be reported multiple times) and that, in terms of the 60 million reports to Facebook, “about half of the content was not necessarily illegal, according to the company.” But even if half of the content was necessarily illegal, we’re looking at huge numbers and an abject failure to protect our children.

“The moral panic could not have been any more intense in the 1980s into the 1990s and the mechanisms that have been erected to reckon with this problem, if it is indeed the problem that it is purported to be, are very much in place,” said Renfro. “Perhaps the moral panic was justified if this is the logical outcome of bringing these issues to the surface, but nothing that has been constructed to address it has worked.”

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