When a mother and author in Utah wrote about the near-abduction of her two oldest children last summer, her story went viral—as these nightmare stories often do.
In her blog post, “How The ‘Tricky People’ Concept Saved My Boys,” Jodie Norton detailed her 8- and 10-year-old sons’ “first real-world experience with the freaky, perverted strangers they’ve been intermittently warned about,” while they waited alone outside a hospital where she was being treated. As Norton told it, “an adult female and two punk males” approached her children and tried to lure them in the bathroom with a story about a sick friend, but the boys—recalling a modified stranger-danger lesson—were able to outsmart the predators.
Few audiences are as reliable or insatiable as a collective of panicked parents, and predictably, Norton’s cautionary tale caught fire, first making the rounds on social media before being picked up by mainstream outlets like Parenting magazine and the Today show. Her story has grown legs again this month, appearing in The Daily Mail, Woman’s Day, and PopSugar, among other publications, below headlines like, “Mum reveals how her sons escaped abductors lurking in hospital toilet.”
There’s just one problem: It doesn’t appear to be true.
According to her version of events—which she says came straight from the mouths of her boys—her two sons were sitting on a bench when they were approached by three strangers who asked the children to “help them out by going into the bathroom where her boyfriend was hiding from the doctor and see if they could convince him to come out and get treated.”
Remembering that his mother had warned him of “tricky people,” grownups who ask children for help instead of other adults, her oldest refused their repeated requests with a polite but firm, and ultimately life-saving, “No, thank you.” The concept of “tricky people” appears to come from Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, an educational company that teaches children how to spot predators.
A neighbor soon arrived to pick up the children, who “jumped in his car, but, not before they saw a third adult male come out from the bathroom, jump into the car with these other three hooligans and drive off,” according to Norton. Crisis averted.
Norton posted her story last May, and comments began pouring in despite her blog’s small audience, with several readers asking whether Norton had reported the attempted abduction to authorities. “I know it’s alarming that it took me several days to figure this out, but please know I did contact the police,” she wrote in response. “They retrieved the video footage and are pursuing this as far as they legally can.”
“The police retrieved the hospital’s video footage that backed up my boys’ story 100 percent,” she wrote in another post.
Norton told The Daily Beast that the police investigation stalled when authorities were unable to identify the faces of the figures in the video. “The police said if they had had a record for doing anything like that then they could nab them for an attempted whatever—sexual abuse or something,” she said.
When contacted by The Daily Beast, the St. George Police department acknowledged Norton’s report and the existence of bystanders that matched the boys’ description of their alleged predators—but disputed her version of events. “The investigation was closed after surveillance footage was not able to corroborate Ms. Norton’s account,” public affairs officer Lona Trombley told The Daily Beast.
“None of the of the three individuals made contact with the boys,” Trombley said.
Norton, who released a book about parenting and family organization skills two months after she wrote about the alleged abduction attempt, said she was surprised by the police account but is sticking to her story.
“The consistent and attentive details of my boys’ account of this event helps me say with confidence that I believe it occurred,” Norton wrote in an email.
“Why would I lie?” she said.
If the police are correct, and Norton’s children were never in any danger and needed no saving, she wouldn’t be the first to cry predator where there was none.
Last year, Kentucky mom Christa Garrett launched a police investigation into “two Muslim men wearing priest attire” after she shared on Facebook that the pair had attempted to abduct her child from a shopping cart at Sam’s Club. Police determined from surveillance footage that no such event occurred.
Just this week, a Southern California mom took to Facebook to write what reporters would later dub “a harrowing account” of a thwarted abduction by “human traffickers” of her three small children inside a local IKEA.
According to mom Diandra Toyos’s since-deleted post, a “well dressed, middle aged man” displayed “odd” behavior that made her “almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking.” These predatory behaviors included picking up merchandise, and looking at and walking in the same direction as her family. (It’s worth noting that IKEAs are organized in a way that requires shoppers to follow a single path throughout the store.)
“I read things like that, and I always think ‘wow, that’s so scary… I need to be careful.’ But I also always think ‘that could never happen to me,’” Toyos wrote. “But you guys, it did.”
But you guys, it didn’t.
Toyos reported the men to IKEA security, who told her they would contact her after reviewing security camera footage. She has yet to hear back, according to CBS News.
The local police are suspicious.
“I saw this when it came out, but I am not sure if we were notified by the woman,” Gregg Peterson, public information officer for the department, told the network. “It definitely appears to be a stretch to consider this a human trafficking issue, but that is just my opinion.”
So it seems the millions of parents who shared these stories and commented on them, or read about them from reporters who couldn’t be bothered to check, can rest easy; Toyos’s children are as safe from human traffickers as Norton’s sweet brood are from Utah’s local punks.
But is anyone really surprised? Statistically speaking, bathtubs, playground equipment, and family members pose a far greater danger to our children than strangers ever will. Yet despite the rarity of stranger abductions—only around 100 serious cases happen each year, according to David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center—these too-good-to-check stories persist.
“Stranger danger is a very ingrained, long-standing kind of parent anxiety, exacerbated by some elements of modern society, namely that we live in cultures where people are living next to people of other races and backgrounds,” Finkelhor told The Daily Beast. “[Abduction anxiety] is a kind of culture conflict laid on top of this primordial concern.
“The reality is, kids are not safe,” he continued. “Children are the most criminally victimized segment of the population, but parents who want to keep their kids safe should focus their attention on issues other than strangers and look within their own environments, to siblings and caregivers.”
Still for Norton, the fear her post inspired—warranted or no—has the potential to do more good than harm.
“Despite the headaches that have resulted from this post, I don’t regret writing about my sons’ encounter one bit,” Norton said. “Why? Because perhaps there are children out there who have now been armed by their parents with the skills and knowledge necessary that will one day prove to save them from some kind of abuse.
“Knowledge is power,” she said.