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Stranger Danger

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Stranger Danger

By: Paul Renfro

Podcast Interview

Paul Renfro and Mical Raz discuss Renfro's book, Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral StateYou can listen here. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Paul Renfro is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University. Mical Raz is the Charles E. and Dale L. Phelps Professor in Public Policy and Health at the University of Rochester.


This review appeared in Crime Media Culture, vol. 17, no. 3 (2021), pp. 1-3.

Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State

By Paul Renfro

New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

How has the fear of ‘stranger danger’ transformed American society? And to what extent has the fear of child abductions committed by ‘strangers’ metamorphosized American criminal justice and child welfare? Paul Renfro’s Stranger Danger illustrates how bereaved parents of missing and slain children turned their grief into a mass movement and, alongside journalists and legislative policymakers (from either side of the US political aisle), rallied and propelled a moral panic. In Stranger Danger Renfro thoughtfully constellates a variety of sources together, including but not limited to text, media, and legal sources, policy reports, moral entrepreneurial brochures and pamphlets to produce this timely and important book, moving the needle forward in terms of scholarly research and thinking on the ‘stranger danger’ myth as it relates to the American carceral state. Stranger Danger documents the birth of the missing child scare in the late 1970s and 1980s and reveals how this panic ‘formed a new legal and cultural system through which Americans would understand and manage threats to children’ (Renfro, 2020: 20), a system which Renfro designates the ‘child safety regime’. A well-structured and provocative book, Stranger Danger reveals the transformative power of moral panic on American politics, media and culture, showing how ideas and images of the ‘endangered child’, and subsequent efforts to save (select) American children from illusory ‘strangers’, did more harm than good by helping to build a more punitive American state in the process.

The author structures the book with an introductory chapter, then divides the text into two parts – comprising three chapters in part I and four chapters in part II – and ends the book with a concluding chapter. Interestingly, the first part of the book concentrates on three cases of missing and exploited youth (which helped launch local, regional, and national child protection efforts that would build the child safety regime by stoking fear and moral panic), while the second part explores how the 1970s and 1980s child safety scare impacted US politics and policy in the 1990s and onward into the new millennium. Beginning with the introductory chapter, Renfro considers the nature, form and application of the ‘stranger danger’ myth, as well as introduces the concept of the ‘child safety regime’ and suggests how this concept will be explored throughout the book. In Chapter 1, Renfro situates reactions to the high profile disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979 and its aftermath, highlighting the issues of ‘the antigay political project undertaken by conservative culture warriors and within the increasingly normative LGBTQ and feminist movements of the 1980s’ (Renfro, 2020: 20). In Chapter 2 the book shifts focus to the 1979 to 1981 kidnappings and murders of some 29 black youths in Atlanta. These tragedies unfortunately exposed the racial and class limitations of the image of the ‘endangered child’, demonstrating how notions of white child-victimhood grounded the child safety regime. Chapter 3 centres on the disappearances of Iowan paperboys Johnny Gosch and Eugene Wade Martin in 1982 and 1984, respectively. Responses to these cases reified the narrow image of endangered (white) childhood that had grown increasingly visible in the Midwest specifically as well as within the nationwide stranger danger panic.

In the book’s second part, Chapter 4 recounts how the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) obstructed missing child legislation in the early 1980s but eventually buckled under pressure from activists. Per Renfro (2020: 126), ‘the alignment between the Reagan administration and its DOJ on child safety enabled the construction of a legal-cultural regime. . .entrusted with safeguarding American youths from moral threats[,]’ which, unfortunately ‘rendered it [the regime] virtually uncontestable’. Further, Chapter 5 explores how the child safety issue, embellished by Reagan conservatives, resulted in ‘toughening’ juvenile justice policies targeting poor, working class, non-white youth. The celebration of the neoliberal, private sector efforts to ‘save’ certain American youth and promote ‘family values’ by President Reagan and other conservatives is discussed in Chapter 6. Such celebration and expansion of child and family protection laid the foundation necessary for the private sector to create child safety instruments to expand its monitoring of young people and surveillance of child predators. Chapter 7 uncovers how the Clinton administration in the 1990s relied upon the stranger danger myth to create new punitive laws to expand and extend the child safety regime into the twenty-first century. The concluding chapter revisits the interlocking relationship of the stranger danger myth vis-à-vis the child safety regime, discuss- ing potential ways forward for Americans to supplant a more balanced set of policies and practices that hopefully will undo the regime in the coming years.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its broad scope. Indeed, Renfro’s use of media to illustrate the tragic narratives of high-profile child kidnappings and murders in America provides a holistic, sophisticated text, balancing both a historical account and rigorous analysis in equal measure. Yet one limitation of the book is the lack of an operational definition of the ‘carceral state’. The carceral state has been defined and understood elsewhere as ‘a series of institutional configurations and actors that prioritize punishment, containment, detention and/or incarceration for treating social inequality such as poverty and marginalization’ (Gacek and Sparks, 2020: 50). Certainly, Renfro is careful to recognize the metastasizing nature of the carceral state, coupled with the ideology of stranger danger to help expand the state and federal supervision of child safety/ protection and punitive measures towards marginalized communities and sex offenders. Yet, a concrete definition in this book remains elusive. Renfro’s foundational arguments in the introductory chapter could be better bolstered with the inclusion of a definition which operationalizes the arguments the author intends to make in the remaining chapters. Notwithstanding, this minor limitation surely does not detract from or reduce the significance of the research presented.

In sum, Stranger Danger highlights the twin perils of overzealous child safety with punitive child discipline; the former materialized by and through the ill-perceived stranger danger myth pervading American criminal justice and child (public and private) protection services, while the latter precipitated through the now-bloated carceral state (leeching into child welfare legislation, regulations and mechanisms, and populist rhetoric surrounding the ‘endangered child’ image). Stranger Danger leaves us a devastating portrait of a country shadow-boxing with illusory, imagined dangers while exposing us to the reality that American governance, at all levels, cannot let the stranger danger myth go, a myth which is truly the real danger to the safety of American children. As stated elsewhere, while ‘[t]he smog of the carceral state may be no less thick. . .our [scholarly] attempts to clean and clear our air of this rotting stench are no less impor- tant’ (Gacek and Sparks, 2020: 57). This must-read book, and the insight and research therein, is a breath of fresh air.

James Gacek, University of Regina

Mical RazAbout Paul Renfro

Paul Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University. He is the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020) and the coeditor (with Susan Eckelmann Berghel and Sara Fieldston) of Growing Up America: Youth and Politics since 1945 (University of Georgia Press, 2019). He has also published in Feminist Studies, Southern Cultures, Enterprise & Society, American Quarterly, Disability Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Women’s History. His public writing has appeared in TIME, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, and Dissent. Renfro’s next book, tentatively titled Young Blood: Ryan White and AIDS, is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press. Before arriving at Florida State, Renfro served as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.