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Thursday, March 14, 2002

Choose Your Neighbors Well
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

The tragic story of Danielle van Dam, the 7-year-old San Diego girl whose recent kidnapping and murder attracted international attention, in part because of the seemingly random nature of the abduction, may yet yield some lessons that can prevent similar heartbreaking occurrences in the future.

Danielle’s father, Damon van Dam, tucked her in bed on the night of February 1 and then went to bed himself. Her mother, Brenda, was out with several girlfriends and did not return home until 2 a.m. Her father woke up in the middle of the night to find a sliding door open downstairs, but returned to bed without checking Danielle’s room.

In recent days, further details of the police investigation of the case have emerged during a preliminary court hearing to establish whether prosecutors have sufficient evidence to continue holding in custody 50-year-old David Westerfield, neighbor of the van Dams. Mr. Westerfield quickly emerged as the chief suspect in the case, in large part because of his suspicious behavior in the days immediately following the child’s disappearance. He was arrested on February 22 and is being held for the kidnapping and murder of Danielle. Police have found evidence of Danielle’s blood and her fingerprints in Westerfield’s motor home. That isn’t all they found, however. A search of Westerfield’s residence yielded still more incriminating evidence. According to a March 13 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Authorities found computer images of child pornography, bestiality and animated cartoons of young girls being tied up and raped.” Add possession of child pornography to the list of charges against him.

Such details present a picture of a rather sleazy neighbor. If Mr. Westerfield is ultimately convicted in this case it will become still more difficult to preserve the fiction, argued strenuously as fact by some, that pornography is a victimless crime. While it is true that not all users of pornography will go so far as to kill someone, several high-profile murderers of recent decades-Ted Bundy comes to mind-were heavily involved in pornography. And, few people will defend child pornography, since it is clearly exploitative.

Another important lesson that this case can teach us about protecting children could easily be lost in the confusion surrounding the real nature of child abduction. The media often focus on abductions committed randomly by complete strangers, but in fact, only about one quarter of such cases involve a child being snatched by a stranger. According to 1997 statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, almost half of child abductions-49%-are committed by family members, mostly parents. Another 27% are committed by acquaintances. When it comes to violent crimes committed against juveniles, the vast majority-65%-are committed by acquaintances. The so-called “stranger danger” tends to be exaggerated.

Dr. Janice Crouse, BLI’s senior fellow, said, “This means that the choices parents make about who they and their children associate with can indeed make an enormous difference when it comes to protecting their children. The ancient admonition to choose your friends wisely remains good advice.” Tragically, the van Dams may have learned this lesson too late. In this particular case, if reports about their “swinger” lifestyle and their participating in wife-swapping are true-and they have not denied it-the case may serve as a cautionary tale for other parents about the real reasons for living “godly, upright and sober lives,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer. Such clean living is not only physically healthier, it also tends to protect both parents and children in other significant ways.

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