Free-Range vs. Fear-Based

Free-Range vs. Fear-Based

On Sunday April 13th, parents of a 6 year old and a 10 year old dropped them off at a park near their house at 4pm and told them to be home by 6pm. When they didn’t show up at 6:30 they started to worry, and then began to panic when they couldnt find them. At 8:30 they got a call letting them know that the kids were at the police station. They eventually got them at 10:30.

This wasn’t their first run in with the police and Child Protective Services. In fact they had been told they were not allowed to let their kids play unattended. Now CPS is getting more serious about their threat to take away the children. It’s clear from listening to them speak that the parents are not neglectful. They just have a different idea about parenting than the state.

This story makes me very angry. At the same time, my partners and I just made a film about a story that’s partly responsible for the hysteria about “stranger-danger”. “Who Took Johnny” focuses on Noreen Gosch and struggle to find her son, and ultimately to raise awareness about the threat of child predators. When her son went missing it was assumed by law enforcement that he was a run away. Noreen knew this wasn’t the case and she immediately started to organize searches, and media to make sure that her son was found.

After years of activism and investigation she was able to figure out what had happened. The evidence pointed to an organized ring of pedophiles who grabbed kids to sell to wealthy people. It sounds crazy, and it’s not something we, as a culture, want to believe. Noreen fought passionately to be heard, and to sound the alarm about the threat. While people had a hard time paying attention to the facts surrounding her son’s case, they began to fear that their kids might go missing as well.

When I was a kid my brother and I rode our bikes to the main street of your college town by ourselves. We couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 at the time. We were free-range kids before it was a thing. Even now, having made this film, I encourage my daughter to walk the mile and a half home from school on a bike path. I understand that there are threats out there, and that my kids should be aware of them. However, they are exceedingly rare. I’m fully in support of the parents in the above video who want to let their kids live freely.


We were just struggling with this issue this morning in a different realm. Last fall we got kittens. We fully intended to keep the as indoor cats. However, now that they are about 9 months old, and spring has sprung, they are increasingly interested in going outdoors. At least one of them is, the other one is scared. I don’t really want them killing the birds, but my bigger worry is that there is a big black male cat, Orpheus, that roams the area. Before we got the kittens he used to come and visit for a while. We let him in and he’d hang out for an hour or two- sometimes even for the night when it was cold out. When we got the kittens he was livid.


He moaned, howled, and tried to get at them through the window. He bit my ankle when I went outside to pet him. Over time they have gotten used to each other and stare through the window or the screen door. Still, I worry that if Orpheus catches them outside he’d hunt them just like he does squirrels and birds. At the same time, a life lived in prison, even a nice one, isn’t much of a life.

I don’t think that Noreen hoped to inspire people to live in fear. Instead, she wanted them to pay attention to the reality that she had been forced to reckon with. If you’re a parent whose child has been abducted and everyone in both the police and the media is telling you that you’re crazy, it’s a lot to carry. In the end, it’s due to Noreen’s work that the police know how to deal with these situations more effectively now. At the beginning of the film Noreen meets with a family whose daughter has been abducted. Their experience is the opposite of hers. The police and FBI have given them tons of support. The first thing we see in “Who Took Johnny” is Noreen and her husband John, giving out their personal phone number on national TV, because they’re the only ones actively looking for their son.

Frank Santiago, who covered the story for the Des Moines Register points out that Johnny’s story changed everything. There was a certain level of hysteria about his case, and that of Adam Walsh, and Etan Patz that led people to be terrified. Ignorance of the reality was bliss, until it wasn’t. However, it’s possible to find balance between fear and ignorance. Taking children away from their loving parents because of fear is ignorant.

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