Learning after the Loss of Leiby Kletzky
The abduction and murder of Leiby Kletzky raised questions of balancing childhood independence with the need to protect our children.
As parents, we don’t need another reminder that the world isn’t safe. But to any parent who is still holding onto the belief that daylight hours and “safe” neighborhoods make any sort of difference in crime statistics, the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky served as yet another grim wake-up call.
The murder shocked New York communities and the world. Beyond the shock, the fear, and the horror came the reverberating ramifications and the ever-burning question stuck on the tip of every parent’s tongue: “Is it ever safe to let a child walk alone?”
Seven blocks stood between Leiby and his home. But he never made it. One wrong turn changed everything.
The line between overprotection and allowing childhood independence is a gray area that parents find themselves constantly debating. Leiby’s parents were no different. Leiby wanted to walk home by himself, and his parents agreed to let their son have a bit of freedom. Leiby’s parents even practiced the route home with him. They believed he was ready to have the invisible leash removed. Leiby's parents did nothing wrong.
But the cases of stranger abductions stir the independence debate. Ben Ownby was abducted by Michael Devlin while walking home from his bus stop. Shawn Hornbeck was abducted while riding his bike. And Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped near her bus stop.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children states stranger abductions are relatively rare. The U. S. Department of Justice reported that only 115 children each year are victims of "stereotypical kidnapping," meaning an abduction by a stranger who holds the child overnight, demands a ransom, murders the child or tries to keep the child.
While stranger abductions may be rare, child predators are nothing new. The Michael Devlins and Levi Arons of the world are modern versions of devils of days past. Before Devlin, there was John Wayne Gacy, who loved to dress up as a clown. Before Gacy, there was Albert Fish, who was arguably one of the most evil child predators of all time. None of them looked like a villain, and many of them were well regarded. Each of them, however, knew how to prey upon their victims. They targeted. They caught. And, in many cases, they killed.
This world has never been ideal; it has never been without evil. The case of Leiby puts the burning question back in the forefront, however. So when is it safe to let the kids off the leash?
In my opinion, we’re asking the wrong question. We’ve been asking the wrong question for years. The real question is this: At what age can a child fend off an adult who is looking to prey upon them?
Leiby tried to fight off Levi Aron. He fought so hard that Aron had scratches and marks from Leiby’s persistence. But Leiby still lost.
For children, the only safe choice is in numbers. As parents, our decision is whether we feel that those numbers should consist only of our child’s peers or to also include an adult.
Alone is not a safe choice for children. History keeps reminding us of this fact with abduction after abduction and killer after killer. For now, my kids are still on the leash. I have a feeling they will be for a while.