The Elizabeth Smart bedtime story

My six-year old daughter told me the Elizabeth Smart story tonight. It came clear out of the blue, and while the details were a bit sketchy she had the point down: a poor little girl was taken from her bedroom one night, and she was away from home for three or four days. Then she came back and everything was okay.

If only.

It dawned on me that this is what some people would call the new normal. The emerging culture — the formations and axioms of what this society will one day be based upon — will come from stories about people like the Smart girl. Not, mind you, the hope of it, the renewal and revitalization of a young woman from slave to survivor and now, to leader.


I fear the cultural imprint is of caution. And well it should be, as we lean into an era where the mere thought of someone walking into a home and taking a child is common enough to be on the mind of a kid. Or taking two Amish girls, just 12 and 7, from a farm stand, sexually assaulting them, and then dropping them off at a stranger’s house.

Is it really that bad out there? Really? It seems so. According to, more than 2,000 missing children reports are filed each day. Of those that are abductions, 25 percent happen at the hands of strangers, and very few from school grounds. The stereotype is real: male perpetrator and female victim. And lest you think this is the same as it was when you were a kid, here’s the modern twist:  In its training material for school administrators, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that up to 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being trafficked for commercial sex.

In my own activities at our local schools, I have learned that child trafficking is a significant and present threat, that school officials, used to dealing with drugs and guns and smartphones, now have to confront the concept that organized people may be waiting to pick off stray kids at the bus stop or on the way to school. Once, when the topic came up, I could see the fear in the eyes of the school executives not because they weren’t prepared — but because THEY DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO PREPARE. What do you do? Send home a flyer? Have a meeting? Do a Fun Fair?

It’s all about Stranger Danger, but dang. It ain’t your neighborhood creeper in the dirty white Coronado anymore. So many poor children are losing their lives, and the opportunity to have a life. And for those who aren’t at risk, those who are safe and snug and alert with parents who hover and educate them on the realities of the world…they will grow to be adults in a far more caustic and cautious world. In the future, maybe Elizabeth Smart, and others like her, will become the modern day version of Cinderella. That’s not so much a bad thing. But it sure is a sad and cynical twist to an already dark-edged fairy tale world.

— Brian Chee

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