News & Views » Citizen Servatius

N.C. kids have never been safer

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It was tradition.

Every year, a week or so before Halloween, the media would start speculating about what the wackos might put in kids' candy this year. Dangerous poisons? Needles? Sometimes it was razor blades. It even became fashionable for a while for Charlotte's hospitals to offer to X-ray our Halloween loot as a public service.

Then last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed the shocking truth to those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s: There has never been a single kid killed in this country by Halloween candy given to them by a stranger. Ever.

Every year, the Journal reports, Joel Best, a University of Delaware sociologist who has researched the topic, spends the month of October trying to assure the media that Halloween is no less safe for children than any other day of the year, to no avail. The "experts" on Halloween survival are paraded across the evening news anyway, advising parents on ways to get their kids through trick-or-treating in one piece.

We've even added new, popular Halloween traditions like the sex offender roundup, which always plays well for sheriffs up for re-election a few days after Halloween. As the sun goes down, hundreds of sex offenders get a stop-by from deputies to make sure they aren't up to something.

Then parents hover over kids as old as 12 as they go door to door because it's dark, you know.

Parents who went out trick-or-treating unsupervised with their friends when they were kids will tell you they serve as chaperones these days because the world is a darker place and terrible things now happen to children.

But is North Carolina really a more dangerous place for kids today than it was 20 years ago? You'd think so if you watch the evening news. Recently released statistics on child fatalities for 2009 say otherwise.

In 1988, the rate of child deaths here was 120.6 per 100,000 according to the North Carolina Department of Vital Statistics. Today it is 67, a remarkable decline. Watch the evening news and it seems that the current generation of parents is doing a lousy job. Whether their kids are ruder is up for debate, but they definitely make it to adulthood more often.

With 10-year-old Zahra Baker's face plastered all over the news night after night since her disappearance a few weeks ago and the finger of blame pointed at her parents, it can seem like the world children live in is spinning out of control.

The facts tell a different story. Child homicides in North Carolina declined dramatically over the last decade, even as the state population grew by 14 percent. In 1999, we lost 54 kids that way. Last year it was 36, the lowest number more than 15 years.

This is a grim subject I know, but it is one with an uplifting message. We take much better care of our children today in just about every way imaginable. This year, for instance, we lost 206 children to unintentional injuries. In 1999 it was 276.

Some of the decrease can be attributed to the improvements in automobile safety, including the fact that you are now required to strap your kid into a child safety seat until he turns 15 or gets his first pimple, whichever comes first. (Editor's note: Yes, that was a joke.) In 1999, the state lost 154 kids to motor vehicle injuries. A decade later, even though the state's population had increased by a million people, we lost 114.

It really is remarkable. From poisoning to drowning to fires, there isn't a single category of harm that can come to a child that hasn't seen significant decreases. Part of the decline is no doubt because of the rapid advancements we've made in technology, medicine and critical care. We lost 286 children to illnesses in 1999 and 278 in 2009, an inspiring achievement, again, considering the growth in the state's population.

All of this points to one inescapable conclusion: We are a society that is doing an increasingly better job of protecting and caring for our children, at least in terms of their physical safety. What that says about us as a people is up for debate, but it has to be good.


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