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Commentary: Tracking predators; saving kids

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2010 - The term "moral panic" describes a disproportionate fear. The fear itself is not irrational because its object is legitimately dangerous, but the anxiety it provokes is totally out of proportion to its likelihood of occurring. If you're having difficulty sleeping at night due to worries that an asteroid will strike your house, you're troubled by moral panic.

When it comes to the prospect of child abduction, we parents seem to be hard-wired to suffer from the affliction. Few instincts are more primal than the urge to protect one's young. In fact, noted naturalist philosopher, Sarah Palin, is on the stump encouraging fellow "Grizzly Bear Moms" to rise up and vote Republican in the fall elections to protect their cubs. It would seem that hers is some sort of metaphorical appeal to the maternal instinct -- I think.

At any rate, when you dispassionately assess the actual threat of child abduction, the numbers -- though inexact -- are nonetheless encouraging. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, approximately 250,000 children are abducted annually in the United States. Of these, only about 110 are the dreaded crimes perpetrated by strangers.

The stranger abduction rate is roughly .04 percent (four hundredths of 1 percent) of all reported incidents. The remaining 99.96 percent are comprised of parental kidnappings, custody disputes among estranged in-laws or crimes committed by other family members, friends or associates. Your child is thus 2,500 times more likely to be taken by some one you know than by the proverbial lurking pervert.

Statistics notwithstanding, it is the relatively rare stranger abduction that captivates public concern. Thomas Hardy once characterized children as "hostages to fate." Any parent can understand his sentiment: Your child, at once both precious and vulnerable, is cast into a world fraught with danger.

Most of us believe that we can control the known hazards. Sensible people don't let weird Uncle Louie take the kids camping. It's the unseen wolf that haunts the shepherd's sleep.

Last week's abduction of Alisa Maier provides a case in point. The 4-year-old was taken from the yard of her home by a total stranger in broad daylight and was recovered wandering around a car wash about 26 hours later. Her only known injury was a bad haircut at the hands of her captor who had apparently sought to disguise her identity. The offending coiffure has since been repaired by a local beautician.

It was a rare crime followed by an even rarer outcome: a happy ending. The tragic fact is that most kidnapped children are killed within hours of their abduction. Alisa beat the odds on two fronts: first by being victimized by a stranger; then by surviving the ordeal unscathed.

As Lincoln County sheriff's deputies approached her suspected abductor, Paul S. Smith, he produced a handgun and shot himself in the head. Cops describe this kind of helpful gesture as the suspect "doing the right thing."

Because Smith died of his self-inflicted wound, we obviously will never know exactly what prompted the crime or why he released young Alisa unharmed. We can, however, learn a little about him by examining his record.

Smith began his career as a pedophile in stereotypical fashion by sexually abusing a child he knew -- in this case, the 10-year-old son of the woman with whom he was living at the time. He subsequently pled to a sodomy rap and did 11 years in the state pen for that offense.

After his release from prison, he embarked on a fairly unremarkable spree of petty crimes: misdemeanor drug possession, a couple of burglaries, tampering with an auto, receiving stolen property, a forgery case that was pending at the time of his death.

But petty crimes have a bad habit of evolving into major ones if you commit enough of them. Such was the case with Smith. A search of his home turned up another gun stashed on the premises. Ballistics revealed this one to be the murder weapon in the killing of an auto shop owner who interrupted a burglary at his business on July 3.

Smith, incidentally, had failed to comply with state law when he neglected to register as a sex offender with local authorities, although no one seemed particularly alarmed by that omission before he snatched Alisa.

Alisa's recovery is generally attributed to the success of the Amber Alert System, which provides intense media coverage and regional broadcasts of suspect and victim when an abduction takes place. This most worthwhile program is an excellent response to a tragic occurrence but the more pressing public policy concern is, or should be, how to prevent these incidents in the first place.

Some have argued that enhanced penalties would provide greater deterrence. Allowing for capital punishment in child predator cases, they contend, would cause a pervert to think twice before grabbing a kid. Though morally satisfying, that approach has a couple of practical limitations.

Executions -- when they actually take place -- ensure that the guest of honor will not recidivate. But executions occur even more rarely than stranger abductions, so the deterrent effect of the death penalty is largely imaginary. Remember that we average 110 child abductions by stranger annually. In the entire United States last year, 52 prisoners were executed. We're back to the odds of being hit by an asteroid.

Worse, the prospect of capital punishment worsens the already poor odds of the victim's survival. If the perpetrator knows that he can be put death for the abduction, what's he got to lose by killing the principal witness against him?

People who find children sexually desirable can't be therapeutically rehabilitated, some studies say, for the same reason that pit bulls can't be counseled into becoming toy poodles. They are what they are.

Given the generally haphazard enforcement of offender registry laws and the number of sexual offenders on parole, it's clear that kids are at risk. Modern technology suggests a solution.

If convicted child molesters were required to wear GPS ankle monitoring devices as a condition of their release, their whereabouts could be tracked on a 24/7 basis. When a child went missing, investigators could immediately determine via computer which predators were in the vicinity at the time of the abduction.

Of course, such a program would require passage of a new federal statute or an appeal to state legislatures across the nation. Either effort would entail a significant commitment of time and money to galvanize public support. Come to think of it, this might be the perfect job for Sarah and the Grizzly Moms.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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