Mamarama: Message Causes Manic Panic

Last week the following message appeared on the widely-read HobokenMoms Yahoo Group:

“Alert!!! White van no plates! Tried taking child from mom! Near rite aid on shipyard! Guy was with a mask n gun! About 5’8 black sweater with hoody and blue sweats white sneakers!!! Please dont let kids wander around!”

In case you’re not familiar with it, the HobokenMoms email group is extremely popular and has more than 6,000 members. While not all of them read every email put forth, a least a couple of hundred emails are sent and read within the group daily.

When something happens in Hoboken, whether it’s a missing scooter or a water-main break, this group can disseminate news like nobody’s business. So when the above, rather panicky email, went out about an attempted kidnapping, the crowd responded immediately and with understandable concern.

Hoboken parents wanted to know what was being done. Were the police notified? Was the assailant caught? Who was the mom involved? Do we know her? Can we help her? The response that came back from the original poster did not answer any of these questions:

“Mom doesn’t want to be known. But i told her i would post something with no names… just so everyone can be alerted.”

We were told, by a different poster, that the police and mayor had been notified, but that didn’t seem to assuage anyone’s fears that this “child snatcher” was off the streets for good.

It was at this point that something about the story seemed suspicious to me. With a quick internet search, I landed on a link that essentially said, “The myth of the ‘man in a white van’ attempting to snatch children off the streets preys on a parent’s worst fears.” The article went on to cite similar occurrences reported from around the globe. But criminologists maintain that the reports are false and the ubiquitous “man in the white van” is an actual “urban myth.” In fact, the legend is known to surge in popularity during school holidays. Monday, the day of the posting, was Columbus Day – a federal holiday.

How could this be though? The poster claimed she was told the story firsthand – from the mother herself – the same mother who wanted to remain “unknown.” I decided to call the Hoboken Police Department for confirmation of the incident; they knew nothing about it but said they’d look into it (which doesn’t necessarily mean that it didn’t happen).

By then, this news had spread to Jersey City via our community Yahoo Group (Jersey City Family Initiative) where I more or less squashed it as a hoax.

But even as a hoax, it raises so many questions – both on the level of who would invent such a tale and then, on the urban-legend side, why such horror stories latch onto our parental psyches in such a visceral manner.

The truth is, as any criminologist will tell you, abductions generally happen via someone known to the child – typically fueled by custody issues. Yet the fear that some random stranger might snatch your child from your hands goes back to a primal protective instinct that I like to call the “Mama Bear” syndrome. Like a bear in the wild, modern humans have certain threats that can circle around our children. There are speeding cars and subway platforms, vicious dogs, elevator doors and any number of things that could potentially harm a child – including a big, bad man in a mask. Unlike the bear, however, we cannot show our razor claws or snarling teeth. We’re basically vulnerable to attack as we let our guards down within the urban sprawl.

For this reason, even if logic prevails that an abduction is unlikely to occur, we are seized by a collective worry for our child’s safety. That worry extends to empathy for any mother who might endure even the threat of having her child snatched from her grasp. Our positive “mob mentality” creates a buzz of nervousness, like animals communicating an imminent risk, and serves to protect the lives of others in its wake. Yet when duped by a hoax, we are left feeling spent by our efforts and angry that our energies were wasted on a false alarm.

Eventually the Hoboken group calmed down and seemed appeased by an official report stating: Despite an ongoing investigation, the Hoboken Police Department remains unable to confirm that any of the allegations that were made are factual. If anyone has any information to provide, please contact the Hoboken Police Department.

Next up, will a dingo eat my baby at the PATH station?

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.