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Jaycee Lee Dugard's Story is Every Parent's Nightmare

An El Dorado County sheriff's deputy holds a photograph of Jaycee Lee Dugard shortly after her 1991 kidnapping in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
An El Dorado County sheriff's deputy holds a photograph of Jaycee Lee Dugard shortly after her 1991 kidnapping in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (By Ivor Markman -- Associated Press)
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Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, September 1, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak was online Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss why the Jaycee Lee Dugard abduction is every parent's worst nightmare.

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In her column, Past Nightmare Underlines Fears of Today, Dvorak writes that Dugard's abduction in 1991 "changed my tiny California home town of South Lake Tahoe forever...Her reappearance last week at the age of 29 generated headlines across the country -- a chilling reminder to me and millions of other parents that it can happen anywhere, to anyone."

A transcript follows.

Petula Dvorak is a new Metro columnist. Her column appears in the Metro section on Tuesdays and Fridays. She can be reached at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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Petula Dvorak: Good afternoon, hope everyone had a nice lunch. Thanks for coming here today. I would love to talk about the Jaycee Lee Dugard case or anything else that strikes you as interesting on this lovely, pre-fall day.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Petula,

I was also in junior high in South Lake Tahoe when Jaycee was kidnapped (it sounds like I was a year ahead of your brother), and my younger sister was in the fourth grade. I appreciated your column because the kidnapping had the same effect on my sister and me. We moved from Tahoe shortly thereafter, but I remember how we looked at playing in the woods and on the streets and waiting for the school bus so differently thereafter.

What a nightmare these kidnappings are for children, their families, and their communities. Best wishes for Jaycee's and her children's recoveries.

Petula Dvorak: Thanks for the comment--so great to hear from a fellow South Tahoe-an.

As you know, it was an amazingly frightening thing to happen in our small town, as they always are. I remember that the Etan Patz case-- the child kidnapped on his way to school in New York City -- and the Adam Walsh case -- the boy taken from a Sears in Hollywood, Florida-- were fresh on everyone's minds. But when you're in a small town, it feels like those things only happen in big cities or big malls.

Unfortunately, the Jaycee case made it clear to everyone that it can happen anywhere, fueling an already murky area of parenting by fear.

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Baltimore, Md.: I feel bad for your kids. I don't mean that in a cruel way -- chances are you are a good mom -- but I think it does them a disservice if we lead by fear. If we stop letting kids learn independence because one girl was kidnapped, licking the bowl because one person dies from E coli in the cookie dough ... that's just sad. Automobile accidents are far more common, yet we don't stop driving.

Petula Dvorak: Baltimore,

Thanks for reading. And I feel sorry for my kids too...I'm sure I'll find some way to traumatize them, as all us kids do.

But I tried to talk a little about that dilemma, that push-and-pull that we feel as parents when it comes to issues like this.

Yes, I want my boys to know what it's like to bike all the way to the store for the first time and buy something on your own. How BIG and IMPORTANT I felt that day---still remember it.

But my mom didn't have the Jaycee case at the time lurking in her mind as a possibility. As parents, we look at all the possibilities and we do our best to protect our kids from them all--no matter how inane or improbable they are.

I certainly don't plan to keep my children locked up and bubble-wrapped. But I have to make those decisions on a daily basis.

And for the record, I totally let them lick the bowl, the beaters, the spatula -- cookie, cake, brownie--all of it. And I'm sure I'll get lots of people telling me how dumb that is.

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Fairfax, Va.: Aren't you just fear mongering by writing columns like "Fears of Today"?

Child abductions by strangers is exceedingly rare, though I appreciate the difficulty your family faced when it happened in your hometown.

And for the record, I will walk with my 7-year-old child, every step of the way, to school because I don't want him hit by a car -- statistically much more likely to happen than a kidnapping.

Petula Dvorak: Fairfax: I completely agree with you on the car thing.

I recently told an old friend of mine whose husband stressing about an upcoming trip to China with their daughter: "tell him the most dangerous part of that trip --statistically -- is the freeway drive to the airport." Really.

I've been a reporter for 20 years, I have seen far more devastation on highways -- beheadings, crushed children, severed legs -- than I've seen kidnapped children. That's the reality.

But as a parent, you also are faced with the burden of trying to protect them from everything you know can harm them. Too much? Do I still drive on the freeway? Of course. Am I all messed up about it? Yes. That's why parents (many) look the way I do!

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Los Angeles: I have to say, this case and others like it with even worse outcomes scare the living hell out of me. I have a 12-month-old little girl and, prior to becoming a mom, would have easily put myself on the "kids need to be kids and have independence" side of this argument. And I do truly believe that but I literally lay awake at night with images of Polly Klass' and Adam Walsh's sweet, smiling faces in my head and wonder how a parent can even BREATHE again knowing that something so awful has happened to their child. I have a grip on reality, I swear I do, but I have never felt the kind of fear that arises in me when I think about losing my child in such a way. I know my little girl will need to develop her independence at some point but I truly don't know how I'm going to deal with it.

Petula Dvorak: Los Angeles:

Exactly! One of the lines that I kept wanting to write as I was struggling with this column was this truth in my life: I can read all the Dr. Spock, Dr. Sears, Dr. Brazelton, etc, as I embark on parenting and try to learn how to be a good mother, but the sad truth is, Phil Garrido will end up making many of my parenting decisions for me.

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Anonymous: How close is the Dugard's house to Garrido's house?

Petula Dvorak: They lived almost 200 miles apart.

I know this because I made many illicit trips to San Francisco (Echo and the Bunnymen concert!!)without my parents knowledge, and had to calculate exactly how long I had before I was supposed to be back home "from a day at Judy's house".

My Gosh, we talk about all the things we think we can control as parents. I fear what they will do behind my back! (And I hope Mom isn't reading this)

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Washington, D.C.: People think I am crazy, but I would love for someone to invent a GPS micro-chip locator for kids. I'm not kidding. An implant like the micro-chip my dog has, with a GPS transmitter than can only be activated by police and ONLY with the written consent of a legal guardian (and a judge). (This to ensure that it won't become an inadvertent tracking device for kids out after curfew.) Imagine how many children could be found mere hours after an abduction, if police could track their location. (BTW, in my invention, the device would dissolve or be removed at age 18.)

Petula Dvorak: Washington: What a great invention! And if we could feed it to them hidden inside a peanut butter sandwich, like we give dogs medicine, it would be perfect.

But seriously, I don't think we're far off from something like this.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Petula, your columns are so down-to-earth and well-written, glad the Post has given you this forum. Do you know about the Lyon sisters, Katherine and Sheila, who vanished from the Wheaton shopping mall, at Eastertime 1975? Their disappearance meant my sister and I were never again allowed to go to the store without a parent or other grownup. Has the Post done any recent follow-ups on that tragic case? It is haunting that TWO young girls could be taken together. I pray for their family daily.

Petula Dvorak: Silver Spring:

Thanks so much for reading and thanks for your nice comments--a newbie like me can use one of these today!

I am not familiar with the Lyon sisters case, but you've piqued my interest, I'll look it up.

And your comment goes to prove that the old "this day and age" argument is kind of useless. It affected your childhood in 1975. That's not because your parents were unreasonable. It happened because they knew about it because it was in your neighborhood.

The amazing folks at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that the 100-120 average rate of children kidnapped annually has not really changed, even from back in OUR childhoods. But 24-hour television has happened, the internet has happened, our awareness of these things has changed our perception, I think.

So instead of the Lyon case that affected your childhood or the Etan Patz case that affected folks growing up in New York in the 1970s or the Jaycee case that was probably unknown nationwide in 1991 but changed my little hometown -- we feel like this is happened ALL THE TIME. But statistically, it's not.

So the new challenge for TODAY'S parents is to stop and not be affected by information overload. So hard.

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DC via Wheaton: I grew up in the 60s and 70s. My mother, a former social worker, was a master of "parenting by fear," even before the Lions girls disappeared. (In fact, their disappearance didn't have that much affect on me, since I was already locked down.) My upbringing took a terrible toll.

I'm a natural introvert, but it took years to learn to feel safe being alone. Now I go where and when I want and the freedom is wonderful!

Petula Dvorak: DC via Wheaton: What an interesting comment! Your mom, as a social worker, probably saw some horrific things. They are such amazing people, social workers, they command my utmost respect, I could never do what they do.

But it obviously took a toll on you, and that's always tough to see.

Good for you for working through that and enjoying freedom today, though.

I wonder, seeing your comments, whether that sort of lockdown, which didn't exist in my childhood home until I left for college and the Jaycee case changed the way my brother would grow up, really affected him.

We are very different and he is a wonderful guy, but definitely more tentative and less intrepid when it comes to social situations.

Something to keep in mind for all parents as we make these decisions about our own children. Thanks so much for writing.

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Denver: Thanks for your column. I was 8 years old and living in Reno when Jaycee was kidnapped, and my memory of it mirrors that of your brother.

When I have children, I want them to learn to be independent, but oh, how scary the world can be.

Petula Dvorak: Denver: Thanks for writing! Ah Reno, another place I could make a quick run to the Mall between 3rd and 6th periods in school.

I'm so in for it when my kids drive.

So do I deny them driving?

Of course not.

But you make a great point, especially when we grew up with all kinds of thrills, the independence and character building they gave us. And when we have kids, would we allow them to do what we did?

Hmm...that GPS tracking device is getting to sound better and better...

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Arlington, Va.: A child is more likely to be hit by lightning than to be abducted by a stranger. But you'd never know this by reading the paper.

There's a reason America has an incarceration rate that is SEVEN times that of other Western industrialized countries, and why we have "Sex Offender" laws that other countries view as insanely punitive. And part of that reason is the media's ratings-driven sensationalistic reporting of these fantastically uncommon events.

May I ask you to take more responsibility for giving people an accurate picture of the risks they face? Please?

Petula Dvorak: Arlington,

Thanks for writing. And yes, the odds that our kids will be snatched by freak kidnappers are really low.

I think we highlighted that rate -- about 100-120 a year.

But so are odds on the whole lighting-strike thing.

Yet, this Saturday, we had a swimming pool close, a ball practice cancelled and an outdoor birthday party nixed in our lives because the weather report predicted thunderstorms.

Is all of that unreasonable?

Maybe.

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Bethesda, Md.: I appreciated your article on abused children. As in kidnapping cases, sometimes the best hope a child has is another adult reporting something suspicious. Yet, how do we balance between reporting something suspicious with not interfering in something we may not understand? One person's impressions of a child locked in a backyard may turn out to be a child with a playhouse.

Petula Dvorak: Bethesda: Thanks so much for writing, that's one to wrangle with, isn't it?

Remember the Banita Jacks case last year? The D.C. Child and Family Services was absolutely flooded with calls from people who suddenly gave in to those suspicions and made reports of child abuse. Their investigation load increased, like 600 percent, I think.

Did any of those suspicions result in real kids getting real help? We'll never know. But probably.

But a few more calls about Banita Jacks -- from neighbors or her family -- may have saved 4 lovely little girls.

I find that often, what your gut tells you is right. My mom drove me crazy with her suspicions about our neighbors. And darn it, she was right most of the time.

Sometimes, a family may not need agency intervention. In many cases, that could be the worst thing to happen to a child. But they need a kind suggestion to visit a city collaborative center that offers food, clothing, utilities assistance and counseling. Maybe slip a card with some addresses under their door if it's a situation you're just not sure about.

Now, would Phil Garrido have responded to some addresses for help shelters and helped Jaycee? No. But a parent who is struggling and at her wit's end might.

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Fairfax, Va.: I still think kids need to develop independence gradually, being given progressively more freedom and responsibility as they grow. It's hard work for parents, because you have to try something, see how it goes, talk to your kids about what they are doing well and what they need to work on before you'll lengthen the leash some more, etc. Also you'll survive some sleepless nights, calls from a kid at 1:00 AM when he's totaled his car, etc. But if you haven't done that from early on, how will they become ready for adult responsibilities??

Petula Dvorak: Fairfax: This is a great point and a real way to look at things, thank you.

Parenting is HARD work.

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San Francisco: This may come across as smug or snarky, but it is intended as neither. I just wanted to say that I'm so glad not to be raising children in this world/culture. Abductions aside, we live in a trashy society where kids have more and more opportunities to be exposed to (or seek out) inappropriate people and content. I don't envy you, parents. I'm glad I won't be leaving anyone behind to suffer in our increasingly violent, materialistic, narcissistic and environmentally unsound world once I'm gone.

Petula Dvorak: San Francisco: You're making a good point, actually.

Many parents I've talked to said the threat of creeping people prowling the internet is a direct link into their homes--who cares about the scary bus stop dude--the real monsters are coming right in via DSL!

Another concern, of course.

And yeah, if I played my cards right and settled in San Francisco, I may have been having too much fun to stop and have kids...

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Columbia Heights, DC: Not much of a question, just a comment. It's a simple fact that these fears of child abduction are overstated, and statistically negligible in comparison with the risk of daily car trips and obesity due to lack of activity. For example, driving a child to school in a vehicle is statistically WAY less safe than allowing children to walk or bike to school alone. It FEELS safer, because as a parent and driver you appear to be in control, but the reality is many, many more kids are hurt in car accidents than by strangers lurking behind bushes. This trend is also really, really bad for children's development, and for society in general. It's just not healthy for kids to grow up not trusting other adults, being escorted everywhere on a short leash (sometimes literally!), experiencing little or no independence. We're raising a generation of weenies, people! One case of child abduction and enslavement in a dungeon of sorts in Europe, and one in the United States, does not make for a trend, or a growing danger. The lack of vigorous outdoor activity and unsupervised play IS a danger.

Petula Dvorak: Columbia Heights: I couldn't agree with you more. Think of all the doofuses texting who can wipe out anyone on the road because they're dashing off zingers from The Hangover to their pals and veer over the double-yellow line.

It's reason you're talking about.

But reason is so elusive when you've got this little life to protect. I mean, if parents were reasonable, would the PeePee TeePee have ever made it to market?

And I love that you used the word "weenie".

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Alexandria, Va.: I have to comment. You do the best you can by your kids and sometimes make bad or irrational decisions. But we should always err on the side of safety.

Kidnapping is frightening, no matter what kind of town you live in. And you always see this sweet angelic white faces, but no one shows the pictures or displays the African-American children who are missing, abducted and exploited.

Some of the have to instill a certain aspect of fear in their kids.

Signed me A black mom, keeping it real

Petula Dvorak: Alexandria: You are totally right, thanks for saying that.

It's a sad, awful place when only one type of child is highlighted. I can honestly say, after working in almost a dozen newsrooms, I've never seen coverage given or denied to this situation based on race or ethnicity.

But I have seen authorities place different emphasis and resources on a case -- ergo the media then gives it special attention because we get access and information -- and that is abominable as well.

Of course, it is our job to point out those inequities, and we often fall short. Thanks so much for making that very good point.

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Mother of teens: Cell phones have allowed me to give my girls more freedom. This summer, I taught my girls how to use the metro bus so they could ride the bus home from summer camp. They're 13 and 15, and I figured they're together, and they have a cell phone to let me know they're on the bus. It was a great experience for them. They even had to learn how to change buses.

Petula Dvorak: Mother of teens (can I have your number so we can talk when I'm there---I'm gonna need some help!)

You make a great point with cell phones with GPS. I have some friends who have also said that technology has helped them immensely.

Not only do they feel better about letting their children out of sight, but I also know one husband in particular who often gets ratted out when he calls his wife to tell her he's on his way home...but his GPS reveals he's holed up at Starbucks...hmmm. I need this system to pinpoint the region's boating stores vis-a-vis my husband's geographic allegations.

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Omaha: I've heard the current number of kidnappings per year is about where it was in the 70's. Do you know if this is true? Also, FWIW, I think you did a good job of balancing "facts vs. feelings" in your story and I didn't perceive it as "fear mongering."

Petula Dvorak: Omaha:

Thanks so much for the comment, that's the plight of a new columnist, balancing my own own feelings with 20 years of experience that taught me to keep my own darn feelings to myself. I really appreciate that.

As far as statistics since the '70s, it's apparently hard to tell. Law enforcement agencies didn't do a very good job of categorizing kidnappings versus runaways versus custody disputes. It wasn't until the 1990s that those data-collecting standards were made clear. But anecdotally, the folks in this field say you're absolutely right, the number of kidnappings in the 1970s seems to be pretty constant compared to those today.

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Kids vary so much: In the early 60s in the college town we lived in, there was an incident. So my friends and I, all ages 5 or 6, made a plan to entrap and catch the perpetrator at the neighborhood park. We were permitted to go about our "normal" business, until we started asking parents for a rope. We were stunned to learn that our parents didn't think it was a good idea to try to catch the bad guy ourselves, and that they then put some limits on our activities until some sort of all-clear was given.

It's a bit astonishing now, but at the time it made perfect sense that we would come together to take care of this problem and use ourselves as bait as well as trappers.

It's hard to know what's best in protecting kids while allowing them their freedom. What's clear to me now is that it shouldn't be left to the small fry to make those determinations alone.

Petula Dvorak: Kids vary so much:

I LOVE this story!

With Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown as our heroes, OF COURSE you thought you could catch the bad guys yourselves!

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Washington, D.C.: Petula, did you see this regarding cookie dough? Life is freaky.

This Woman Might Die From Eating Cookie Dough

Petula Dvorak: Cookie Dough: I know, I know...I tried to keep my husband from seeing that story.

I know it's bad--what to do?

My little one loves sashimi--not even sushi, he doesn't want the rice, he eats slabs of raw fish.

The sushi chefs usually take pictures of him.

It drives my mother-in-law crazy, with endless stories about the worms he surely will have.

Apparently, I have no culinary boundaries for them. Slap me.

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Petula Dvorak: Readers, thank you so, so much for all the great comments. I just couldn't get to all of them, there were so many. But it was so wonderful to have this conversation with y'all.

Please come back next time I'm on, it's really a pleasure to chat.

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