After Athena Strand abduction, we must keep our children safe without living in fear

One of the hardest things about modern day parenting is knowing how and when to protect your kids.

How much freedom do I give them? How closely do I monitor their every move? Is that necessary? Is it even good for them?

Those questions were no doubt on the minds of many Fort Worth parents last week after they learned of the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Athena Strand.

Athena disappeared outside of her home in Paradise in Wise County on Nov. 30. Her body was recovered several days later.

A FedEx contract driver, Tanner Horner, has been arrested, and law enforcement officials say he confessed to murdering Athena.

According to details from the arrest warrant, he strangled the little girl after he accidentally backed into her with his van, telling authorities that he feared she would tell her father what had happened.

The circumstances are confounding. The outcome tragic.

Unfortunately, neither are unprecedented.

A memorial bathed in pink light stood on a hill during a vigil for 7-year-old Athena Strand, at The First Baptist Church in Cottondale, Texas, Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2022. More than 1000 people attended her vigil. At one point the sheriff’s department said that traffic was backed up to Boyd. Strand was kidnapped from her home on Wednesday. A contract FedEx driver is in custody after confessing to her kidnapping and killing. (Special to the Star-Telegram Bob Booth)
A memorial bathed in pink light stood on a hill during a vigil for 7-year-old Athena Strand, at The First Baptist Church in Cottondale, Texas, Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2022. More than 1000 people attended her vigil. At one point the sheriff’s department said that traffic was backed up to Boyd. Strand was kidnapped from her home on Wednesday. A contract FedEx driver is in custody after confessing to her kidnapping and killing. (Special to the Star-Telegram Bob Booth)

The day after her disappearance, an Amber Alert was issued for Athena, setting iPhones across the region buzzing in that daunting and all-too-familiar way.

Among my local friends, news of the missing girl triggered jarring memories of a kidnapping that occurred barely three blocks from my home, just over three years ago.

In that case, a little girl was literally ripped from the arms of her mother as the two were out walking one afternoon.

I remember the event clearly because my family had been out walking the same streets an hour before she was snatched.

The outcome of that horror, though, was good.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of her mother, citizens and law enforcement – and no doubt the prayers of many people – the girl was found and rescued.

Her assailant is serving a life sentence in prison.

At the time of the kidnapping, I wrote that my family would not stop walking our streets because a deranged individual committed a horrific act nearby.

Our world is a broken and imperfect place, but we have to live in it. And truly living in it means doing all the things that make our lives beautiful and fulfilling even when they come with risks.

We cannot be motivated by fear, especially when these incidents — terrifying when they occur — are still, thankfully, exceedingly rare.

Such events complicate our feelings as parents, though, and intensify the desire to be vigilant with our children at all times.

Indeed, one of my friends texted shortly after news of Athena’s kidnapping broke, that she had become too lax with her daughters in the years since our neighborhood kidnapping and needed to tighten up.

Athena Strand, 7, was found dead after she was kidnapped from outside her home in Wise County, Texas, authorities said.
Athena Strand, 7, was found dead after she was kidnapped from outside her home in Wise County, Texas, authorities said.

Maybe.

With crime on the rise (for a complexity of reasons), it can feel like we have to alter our behaviors to accommodate the increased risks.

But the truth remains that our kids are far more likely to encounter dangerous people and things in the ordinary course of their days, sometimes through mediums that we tend to view as benign — and sometimes in places that we believe are safe.

Think, for example, how many kids have smartphones and social media accounts.

Yet we know that online predators are a far bigger concern for law enforcement and a far easier way for perpetrators to identify, groom, exploit and harm children.

Many parents don’t think twice about sending their children to school or sports, church groups or other activities, trusting the adults involved to care for them, when we know that it is not unprecedented for teachers, coaches or religious leaders to target our kids in various ways.

That is not to say that we should stop sending our kids to activities. Indeed, the opposite is true.

Our lives are better when they are not lived in fear and anxiety. Our kids’ lives are better when they are taught to balance risk and reward, to practice vigilance but also to understand that risk is inherent to our existence.

We all mourn the loss of Athena and the tragedy of any child who suffers at the hands of a villainous adult. We pray for her family.

We must not let these tragedies govern our lives.

And we must keep walking the streets to show that they won’t.