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How abduction panic became big business Stranger danger has metastasised into something darker

Were mothers always this paranoid? Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Were mothers always this paranoid? Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images


August 22, 2023   6 mins

Why did Phoebe Copas shoot her Uber driver? The 48-year-old got into a car driven by Daniel Piedra Garcia on June 16 thinking she was heading to El Paso in Texas. But when she saw a sign reading “Juárez, Mexico” — which lies on the other side of the border — she pulled a handgun from her bag and shot Piedra in the head. He died several days later. Copas later told the police she panicked when she thought she was being abducted.

It wasn’t long after that the disappearance of 25-year-old Alabaman Carlee Russell became an internet sensation. Russell had called 911 to report that she was helping a toddler she had found wandering along the side of a highway. But when officers arrived at the scene, Russell and the child were nowhere to be found. Instead, they found her wig, phone and car. Sparking a 49-hour police search, Russell then turned up at her parents’ home saying she had been blindfolded, kidnapped and forced into a vehicle, where she could hear a baby crying. She claimed she had been held in a home where a woman fed her cheese and crackers, but that she had managed to escape.

In a statement from her lawyer nine days later, Russell admitted that the entire story had been fabricated. Police reported that they had found some “very strange” searches on her phone, including “how to take money from a register without being caught” and “the movie Taken” — in which Liam Neeson tracks down a gang that has kidnapped his daughter in order to sell her into sexual servitude.

Days after Russell’s deceit was revealed, Californian “momfluencer” Katie Sorensen was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Her crime had been to falsely report, in social media videos that had gone viral two years earlier, that a Hispanic couple who “weren’t clean-cut individuals” had attempted to kidnap her two children in a suburban parking lot.

This collection of bizarre and sad stories point to a strange phenomenon. Awareness of human trafficking has curdled to such an extent that an increasing number of women think it feasible that they or their children could be snatched off the streets. Exacerbating their fears, Sound of Freedom was released in cinemas at around the same time Russell came clean. It tells the story of Tim Ballard and his foundation, Operation Underground Railroad, which purports to have rescued around 4,000 children from traffickers and has found a receptive audience.

Earlier this year, a Pew survey on American parenting found that 28% of parents of children under 18 — that figure rising to 35% of mothers — were extremely or very worried about their kids being kidnapped or abducted. The fear ranked third on the list of concerns, behind mental health issues and bullying, and above getting shot, pregnant or addicted to drugs. It appears that America’s long history of stranger danger has been supercharged by very modern forces.

The period between 1970 and 2000 is known as the “golden age of serial murder”, as the birth of the interstate highway system meant unprecedented numbers of people moved to urban and suburban centres. The resulting loss of community and greater anonymity is thought to be behind the dramatic increase in murders and abductions, with children and young women overwhelmingly the victims.

In the same era, a newly empowered generation of women entered the workforce en masse — which required them to outsource the care of their children to strangers. This contributed to the “daycare panic” of the Eighties — more commonly known as the “satanic panic” — in which thousands of unsubstantiated cases of “ritual satanic abuse” of children were reported around the country. Most of the alleged perpetrators were childcare workers, despite the fact that fewer than 1% of abuses have been found to take place in those settings. This anxiety suggests that America wasn’t ready to accept women leaving their children in the care of others.

While the number of serial killers in the US has decreased decade by decade, the fear remains stubborn. Urban legends about abductions have been around forever, but the internet has made them more widespread. Hoaxes about kidnappings are now clickbait staples on social media, and often find their way into local media. The online fact-checking website Snopes has a database of kidnapping hoaxes dating back to the Nineties, featuring reports of everything from a hook-handed psycho targeting teens making out in parked cars, to attempted abductions of kids from amusement parks being thwarted because the kidnappers forgot to change the child’s shoes.

This is not to say that horrific events don’t happen. When they do, they legitimise the fears behind some of the wilder notions. In 2002, for instance, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint from her home by an itinerant preacher and held captive for nine months before being rescued. Smart has since become an activist who has testified in Congress, addressed conferences and become a film producer turning the stories of famous abductees into daytime television staples. In other words, tragic as it is, her story has had an outsize impact on America’s cultural consciousness.

And where there is fear, there are those waiting to exploit it. The anti-human trafficking cause, while virtuous on its surface, has become a lucrative business, both for groups who exist to raise awareness for it, and for influencer-entrepreneurs.”There is a willingness for a lot of nonprofits to say whatever they need to say to get donations,” says law professor Bridget Carr at the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Clinic. More often than not, these organisations are geared towards awareness and training, and not working in the actual field with genuine victims. As Carr notes, “many in the anti-trafficking movement are always willing to use sex trafficking as a synonym for human trafficking”.

Anti-trafficking organisations played a large part in promoting the myth that, each year, the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking event in the world. As hundreds of thousands of people descend on the host city, the story goes, so too do pimps, prostitutes and unwitting victims. Researchers found that, between 2010 and 2016, 76% of US print media reported a link between the Super Bowl and trafficking for sexual exploitation; the story had also been picked up by outlets such as CNN and Reuters — even though there is no definitive data behind it, and it has been repeatedly debunked.

While media and societal shifts laid the foundations for the abduction panic, the advent of the pandemic brought such issues into the mainstream. Conspiracy was in the air, and lockdowns meant that many turned to online communities for company. In real life, people masking on the streets were suddenly viewed as unrecognisable, suspicious and potentially dangerous.

It was in this atmosphere that a wannabe rapper, model and cryptocurrency enthusiast Scotty Rojas, aka Scotty the Kid, became radicalised by QAnon. On Instagram, Rojas developed the social media movement #SaveOurChildren, which promised to tackle “the real pandemic”, citing the false statistic that 800,000 children go missing in the United States each year — the equivalent of around 2,000 a day.

Taken up by a broad coalition of people — from wellness influencers to a former high-flying PR executive who went viral for destroying a display of face masks to raise the alarm about elite paedophile rings — the #SaveOurChildren movement began holding mass rallies around the nation. Though they existed in the name of child protection, they quickly became a way to protest against lockdowns and looming vaccine mandates, as well as progressive values in general, safetyism in particular and, on top of everything else, the validity of sex work. This “conspirituality” coalition had been building for some time. But as #SaveOurChildren grew in popularity, many who jumped on board were simply concerned parents who were absorbing disinformation via social media.

And yet, no matter how well-intentioned, online scare campaigns certainly weren’t addressing the real issues behind child sex trafficking, which ultimately require more robust welfare and state intervention. Overwhelmingly, trafficking victims, particularly children, are preyed upon by a close family member, or someone they know and trust. As Bridget Carr told me, during her many years working to advocate for children, she’s “represented hundreds and hundreds of victims and consulted on many more cases, and never, not one time in my case work has a child been snatched by a stranger. Not one time.”

Sensational tales do well on social media, with facts trailing far behind. Katie Sorensen was a failing influencer until her video went viral. As police investigated her claims, she appeared in news bulletins, repeating her story. On TikTok alone, videos tagged “abduction warnings signs” have 245.7 million views.

As with most social media ephemera, the energy behind the #SaveOurChildren movement has since shifted. Hoaxes about women being abducted outside Target stores are currently racking up tens of millions of TikTok views. In a climate where many have terrified themselves into believing that child abductions are happening all around them, it’s not much of a leap to believe women will be snatched too. The #MeToo movement, though it did an enormous amount of good, also led to a heightened sense of vulnerability among women, who were often already fixated on urban legends of abductions.

Behind the abduction panic is an even wider problem, then, than the legitimate crisis of global human trafficking. It is a product of the social isolation of modern America, which was accelerated by the pandemic. As we work from home, have our entertainment beamed to our couches and have food delivered to us, everyday interactions with strangers are becoming rarer and rarer. In turn, we’re becoming increasingly suspicious of everything and everyone. As with many of modern life’s ills, the way out of this new fear may just be spending more time in the real world and less time online.


Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.

ellehardy

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Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
9 months ago

This again?
Yeah, I know: “trans women are women” “sex work is work” and “child sexual abuse is a moral panic.”
Give it up. We aren’t buying it.
Too many of us have direct experience of being sexual exploited as kids.
There is nothing valid about “sex work” because it’s an umbrella term that includes pimps and “cam girls” and erases the suffering of the most vulnerable victims of sexual exploitation; the poor, the young, and the disabled. “Sex work is work” is an extreme Luxury Belief that has no place in a compassionate society.
Also, child sexual exploitation is a horrific problem, whether it’s 5 children or 5 million children.
Yes, like me, most children are abused and trafficked by a close family member.
However, just because your friend Bridget Carr never met a trafficking victim who was abducted by a stranger doesn’t mean stranger abductions don’t happen. They clearly do (and those abducted by strangers are probably less likely to live to tell the tale – to Bridget or anyone else).
Are we a paranoid and isolated society?
Yes.
Are we too concerned about child sex trafficking (or adult sex trafficking)?
Oh, hell no.
We aren’t nearly concerned enough.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

The article is merely pointing out that people being snatched off the street is (thankfully) vanishingly rare, and it attracts a media presence than the prevalence of the crime actually deserves. This in turn attracts charlatans and con artists happy to make some quick coin playing on peoples fears by pretending it’s much more common than it actually is.
It in no way diminishes the crime of abduction, abuse or trafficking

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Also, child sexual exploitation is a horrific problem, whether it’s 5 children or 5 million children.

For the subject of the article, yes it does matter. Because it changes the level of actual risk. And responses to it thus change between rational response to a genuinely high level of risk or exaggerated (and possibly damaging) response to a very small risk.

We all agree, of course that it would be better if bad things never happened, but they do, they will continue to do so, and we need to take a proportionate response.

Last edited 9 months ago by David Morley
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
9 months ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

The article is merely pointing out that people being snatched off the street is (thankfully) vanishingly rare, and it attracts a media presence than the prevalence of the crime actually deserves. This in turn attracts charlatans and con artists happy to make some quick coin playing on peoples fears by pretending it’s much more common than it actually is.
It in no way diminishes the crime of abduction, abuse or trafficking

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Also, child sexual exploitation is a horrific problem, whether it’s 5 children or 5 million children.

For the subject of the article, yes it does matter. Because it changes the level of actual risk. And responses to it thus change between rational response to a genuinely high level of risk or exaggerated (and possibly damaging) response to a very small risk.

We all agree, of course that it would be better if bad things never happened, but they do, they will continue to do so, and we need to take a proportionate response.

Last edited 9 months ago by David Morley
Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
9 months ago

This again?
Yeah, I know: “trans women are women” “sex work is work” and “child sexual abuse is a moral panic.”
Give it up. We aren’t buying it.
Too many of us have direct experience of being sexual exploited as kids.
There is nothing valid about “sex work” because it’s an umbrella term that includes pimps and “cam girls” and erases the suffering of the most vulnerable victims of sexual exploitation; the poor, the young, and the disabled. “Sex work is work” is an extreme Luxury Belief that has no place in a compassionate society.
Also, child sexual exploitation is a horrific problem, whether it’s 5 children or 5 million children.
Yes, like me, most children are abused and trafficked by a close family member.
However, just because your friend Bridget Carr never met a trafficking victim who was abducted by a stranger doesn’t mean stranger abductions don’t happen. They clearly do (and those abducted by strangers are probably less likely to live to tell the tale – to Bridget or anyone else).
Are we a paranoid and isolated society?
Yes.
Are we too concerned about child sex trafficking (or adult sex trafficking)?
Oh, hell no.
We aren’t nearly concerned enough.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

For this I blame Australia. Migration to Australian cities and increased opulence, resulted in a number of suburban newspapers in addition to the related development of three commercial TV networks in the 1960s.

Because Australia is awful big, there was a newsroom for each TV channel, in each state. That’s twenty TV newsrooms (three for each mainland state and the federal capital territory, the small state of Tasmania meriting only two.)

More if you add the government-run Australian Broadcasting Commission (sort of a knock-off of the BBC.) Even more if you add New Zealand, which has similar demographics and free movement making it easy for the citizens of either to live and work in the other.
The only trouble with this is that not much happens in suburban Australia.
I mean, very little. It’s seriously quiet. Like a grave (joke.) NZ even more so.
A newspaper edition every week might be overdoing it.
When something finally did happen, in 1966, it was an abduction, three children from an Adelaide beach, known as the Disappearance of the Beaumont Children.
The country was transfixed. The proprietor who owned those suburban newspapers? One Rupert Keith Murdoch.

The trope of child abduction in otherwise sleepy suburbia, became a staple of tabloid newspaper-dom and commercial TV, first in Australia, then wherever else the Murdochs operated, or under-employed Australian media staff emigrated to work.

Also big was the related topic of child murder, as in the Azaria Chamberlain case.

Paradoxically, real Australian child abduction, ie the indigenous ‘Stolen Generations’, as implemented by governments, or by cults embedded within state hierarchies eg, ‘The Family’ in the creepy, neo-gothic state of Victoria, generated little or no media interest whatsoever.

Last edited 9 months ago by Dumetrius
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

For this I blame Australia. Migration to Australian cities and increased opulence, resulted in a number of suburban newspapers in addition to the related development of three commercial TV networks in the 1960s.

Because Australia is awful big, there was a newsroom for each TV channel, in each state. That’s twenty TV newsrooms (three for each mainland state and the federal capital territory, the small state of Tasmania meriting only two.)

More if you add the government-run Australian Broadcasting Commission (sort of a knock-off of the BBC.) Even more if you add New Zealand, which has similar demographics and free movement making it easy for the citizens of either to live and work in the other.
The only trouble with this is that not much happens in suburban Australia.
I mean, very little. It’s seriously quiet. Like a grave (joke.) NZ even more so.
A newspaper edition every week might be overdoing it.
When something finally did happen, in 1966, it was an abduction, three children from an Adelaide beach, known as the Disappearance of the Beaumont Children.
The country was transfixed. The proprietor who owned those suburban newspapers? One Rupert Keith Murdoch.

The trope of child abduction in otherwise sleepy suburbia, became a staple of tabloid newspaper-dom and commercial TV, first in Australia, then wherever else the Murdochs operated, or under-employed Australian media staff emigrated to work.

Also big was the related topic of child murder, as in the Azaria Chamberlain case.

Paradoxically, real Australian child abduction, ie the indigenous ‘Stolen Generations’, as implemented by governments, or by cults embedded within state hierarchies eg, ‘The Family’ in the creepy, neo-gothic state of Victoria, generated little or no media interest whatsoever.

Last edited 9 months ago by Dumetrius
Saul D
Saul D
9 months ago

In the 1970s in the UK at least, child abduction was a big enough issue that children were bombarded with government adverts about stranger-danger eg “Charley says – Don’t talk to strangers” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3FnCiRpdQ4
The perception of threats to children was also heightened by the high-profile of child murders in the news, to which you add the high-profile child abuse cases and institutional scandals, and the rise in prosecutions for child-porn, often involving networks of offenders. With all this taught fear over decades, it’s not surprising that stories of child-trafficking touch a nerve (and it doesn’t help when children seem to be being sexualised in schools and stores). Media and fiction always exaggerates reality, but it’s replaying a folk narrative that has a long dark history.

Saul D
Saul D
9 months ago

In the 1970s in the UK at least, child abduction was a big enough issue that children were bombarded with government adverts about stranger-danger eg “Charley says – Don’t talk to strangers” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3FnCiRpdQ4
The perception of threats to children was also heightened by the high-profile of child murders in the news, to which you add the high-profile child abuse cases and institutional scandals, and the rise in prosecutions for child-porn, often involving networks of offenders. With all this taught fear over decades, it’s not surprising that stories of child-trafficking touch a nerve (and it doesn’t help when children seem to be being sexualised in schools and stores). Media and fiction always exaggerates reality, but it’s replaying a folk narrative that has a long dark history.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago

An estimated 60,000 Ukrainian children since the beginning of the war are missing. Untold numbers of children who have (been) crossed illegally into the US have disappeared into the ether. As Tim Ballard points out, you can only sell a bag of cocaine once, but you can sell a child for sex 5-10 times a day.
I’d say that’s a genuine reason to be very, very wary.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago

There is always the horrifying possibility that there’s more to this story than there seems. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We should be very, very wary.
The US is not known to be a particularly child-friendly place. As usual, I’m left wondering what we’re paying the FBI for.

Last edited 9 months ago by laurence scaduto
Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
9 months ago

Apparently, we’re paying them to help Democrats get elected.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
9 months ago

Apparently, we’re paying them to help Democrats get elected.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
9 months ago

There is always the horrifying possibility that there’s more to this story than there seems. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We should be very, very wary.
The US is not known to be a particularly child-friendly place. As usual, I’m left wondering what we’re paying the FBI for.

Last edited 9 months ago by laurence scaduto
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
9 months ago

An estimated 60,000 Ukrainian children since the beginning of the war are missing. Untold numbers of children who have (been) crossed illegally into the US have disappeared into the ether. As Tim Ballard points out, you can only sell a bag of cocaine once, but you can sell a child for sex 5-10 times a day.
I’d say that’s a genuine reason to be very, very wary.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

This doesn’t appear to be anything new. Previously we had the “white slave” trade panic which had women running in fear over Chinese laundries. Then there is alien abduction. Did similar panics lead to the lynching of black men in the south?

Interestingly kidnapping seems to feature quite strongly in female sexual fantasy and fantasy literature (Bound for Algiers and the rest). Could we have to do here with some sort of psycho-sexual phenomena? Do we need to be a bit more Freudian to understand these phenomena?

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

This doesn’t appear to be anything new. Previously we had the “white slave” trade panic which had women running in fear over Chinese laundries. Then there is alien abduction. Did similar panics lead to the lynching of black men in the south?

Interestingly kidnapping seems to feature quite strongly in female sexual fantasy and fantasy literature (Bound for Algiers and the rest). Could we have to do here with some sort of psycho-sexual phenomena? Do we need to be a bit more Freudian to understand these phenomena?

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Is this largely a female phenomena? Or do men also live in fear of abduction. I’ve noticed that women tend to exaggerate, to themselves as well as others, the risks that they face in a way that men generally do not. And there seem to be plenty of people willing to play on those fears for political as well as financial reasons.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Certainly some men claim it. Often gay.

When I have heard it, there have been evident underlying mental health issues, and a stubborn and absolute refusal by the alleged victim to go anywhere near a police station and report it.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I meant the fear of abduction more than the claim it had actually happened. But from the article your point may be true also.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

These guys probably fantasise it or otherwise build it into the narrative that they use to sell themselves to others as interesting people.

However, evoking it, probably stokes fear of abduction in other people.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

These guys probably fantasise it or otherwise build it into the narrative that they use to sell themselves to others as interesting people.

However, evoking it, probably stokes fear of abduction in other people.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

I meant the fear of abduction more than the claim it had actually happened. But from the article your point may be true also.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Certainly some men claim it. Often gay.

When I have heard it, there have been evident underlying mental health issues, and a stubborn and absolute refusal by the alleged victim to go anywhere near a police station and report it.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Is this largely a female phenomena? Or do men also live in fear of abduction. I’ve noticed that women tend to exaggerate, to themselves as well as others, the risks that they face in a way that men generally do not. And there seem to be plenty of people willing to play on those fears for political as well as financial reasons.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
9 months ago

Tell that to Lisa McVey, Colleen Stan, the girls Ariel Castro held captive for years or the thousands who’ve suffered a similar fate that such crimes are simply a “moral panic” whipped up by overactive doom sayers. While most violent crimes against women are committed by someone they know, government statistics show that 40% of crimes against women are by strangers. That’s no small amount. Almost half. So women and children have a right to be wary.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
9 months ago

Tell that to Lisa McVey, Colleen Stan, the girls Ariel Castro held captive for years or the thousands who’ve suffered a similar fate that such crimes are simply a “moral panic” whipped up by overactive doom sayers. While most violent crimes against women are committed by someone they know, government statistics show that 40% of crimes against women are by strangers. That’s no small amount. Almost half. So women and children have a right to be wary.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

One country where child abduction does happen more frequently is China, on account of the one-child policy.

The tell-tale of child abduction going on in the real world, is of course, its being under rather than over-reported.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago

One country where child abduction does happen more frequently is China, on account of the one-child policy.

The tell-tale of child abduction going on in the real world, is of course, its being under rather than over-reported.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
9 months ago

“The #MeToo movement, though it did an enormous amount of good, also led to a heightened sense of vulnerability among women … ”
It also led to the legitimation of vigilantism–bypassing the courts and due process that the law requires.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

How abduction panic became big business
Obviously we need some sort of snappy sobriquet for this sort of sensationalist kidnapping-panic industry. I’d recommend “Big Snatch”, but I think that’s already taken.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

How abduction panic became big business
Obviously we need some sort of snappy sobriquet for this sort of sensationalist kidnapping-panic industry. I’d recommend “Big Snatch”, but I think that’s already taken.

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
8 months ago

“they quickly became a way to protest against lockdowns and looming vaccine mandates,”

The author writes as if it’s unreasonable to object to these things.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

All of this correlates with the quasi-open US border policy of the last 5 years, if not pre-dating Biden. It is a particular social phenomenon linked to clear ideological policy-making, as is the Fentanyl tragedy.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

All of this correlates with the quasi-open US border policy of the last 5 years, if not pre-dating Biden. It is a particular social phenomenon linked to clear ideological policy-making, as is the Fentanyl tragedy.