On Aug. 28, a coalition of 20 state attorneys-general forwarded a letter to President Donald Trump requesting funding to provide Child ID Kits for the nearly 30 million kindergarten through sixth-graders across America.
At a cost of $1.76 per child, financing of the kits under the National Child ID Act, H.R. 4172— introduced last year by Representatives Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA)— would approach $52 million.
Spouting exaggerated statistics and tiresome scare tactics, the AGs’ letter suggested that the Child ID Kits would “empower every parent to protect their child(ren) from some of the worst harms imaginable”: child exploitation, abduction and human trafficking.
Child ID Kits allow parents to capture their children’s physical characteristics and fingerprints. They are already available free to those who ask for them through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s Safety Central App, the FBI’s Child ID App and Ready.gov.
The AGs propose that federal grant funding be used to purchase enough kits from the provider to cover all the nation’s kindergarten and elementary school children. Parents would be responsible for completing the kits and storing the information at home. If a child is reported missing, parents would have the child’s information readily available to give to the police.
Avoiding Scare Tactics
Child safety is a responsibility we all share. Part of this responsibility is to ensure that public policies and programs are sound and not based on fear tactics that signal to our families that their kids are in ever-present danger.
But Child ID Kits are not the answer to protecting our children from child exploitation, abduction and human trafficking because the kits are not preventative measures.
Interest group leaders, including politicians and chief legal officers, raise awareness to and funding for their programs through numbers. Strategically selected and presented numbers mobilize supporters and focus energies on issues leaders deem important. Larger numbers representing larger problems—whether accurate or not—are used to raise awareness and funding for a cause.
The attorneys’ general coalition declared:
Statistics show that more than 800,000 children go missing each year including runaways and those abducted. That is one child gone every 40 seconds. And we are seeing those statistics rise along with child sexual abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.
According to the FBI, however, there were only 424,066 missing children entries in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database in 2018, and 421,394 entries in 2019.
By suggesting that a child vanishes forever every 40 seconds and through conflating runaways with abuse, exploitation, human trafficking and rare stranger abductions—without considering cleared cases and benign explanations—the coalition is grossly exaggerating their category of interest to make it appear like a bigger problem.
Embellished statistics result in narratives that do not factually represent the issue at hand.
Furthermore, the fears incited by inaccurate portrayals of serious matters can hamper rational thinking and decision-making. When critical thinking is suspended, moral panic can take its place. Moral panic describes the real or imagined societal fear of a particular crime’s pervasiveness, like stranger abductions and other threats to children.
‘Crime Control Theater’
The practice of deliberately creating a moral panic around an issue as a political mobilization tool is called Crime Control Theater, a term used to describe programs like the now-defunct Stranger Danger campaign.
When a child is reported missing, one of the most useful tools a law enforcement agency has at its disposal are current photographs and up-to-date physical descriptions. Proponents of Child ID Kits may point to this fact as evidence of need.
However, there is no need to spend $52 million, since the Child ID Kits, as noted above, are already widely available to those who want them, and free.
Child exploitation, child abduction and human trafficking need rational solutions, not theater and moral panic. Preventative measures must also be age-appropriate. Exposing young children to crimes and situations they are unlikely to face can instill a lasting sense of fear and dread.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) offers comprehensive and age-appropriate child safety resources that address a full range of topics that includes cyberbullying, gaming, online enticement, sexting and sextortion, abduction, and setting appropriate physical boundaries. Through programs like Kidsmartz and NetSmartz, K-12 children, parents, teachers, and law enforcement can learn to create safer online and physical communities. NCMEC’s resources are also free.
It would be wasteful to spend $52 million on Child ID Kits that are little more than a theatrical approach to a sensationalized issue. By overstating the kits’ effectiveness in combatting crimes against children, the coalition is giving parents a false sense of security. We should demand more of our attorneys general and our legislators because our children deserve better.
The protection of children is one of society’s most significant responsibilities. The $52 million would be better spent on initiatives that are proven to reduce gun violence, food insecurity and other threats that our children face daily.
Stacey Pearson is a child safety advocate and a recently retired law enforcement professional with extensive experience in complex missing, abducted, and exploited children investigations. She is a doctoral student at Northeastern University, researching fatal family abduction AMBER Alerts.