Fort Worth residents celebrate safe return of 8-year-old kidnapped
On Saturday evening, my family and I were walking the streets of Ryan Place — part of our nightly ritual before the heat of the Texas summer sets in.
My daughters, two and four, like to run ahead of my husband and me, collecting wild flowers and searching for neighbors’ dogs to pet. But that evening, for no reason in particular, they wanted to walk with me. So, my daughters on either side and my husband a few steps ahead, I inhaled the springtime air, fresh after the rain, and relished their tiny hands clinging to my own.
Around 6 p.m. we rounded the corner of 6th Avenue and Cantey, a couple blocks from our home, and only a block from where a horror was about to unfold for a nearby family that no one in our friendly, close-knit Fort Worth neighborhood — where a community watch patrols the streets and an active social media page regularly documents strange observances — could have anticipated.
Several hours later, sitting on the couch, our kids asleep in bed, we learned from a friend and neighbor that little Salem Sabatka had been abducted from the sidewalk — and from her mother’s side — on the street where we had been walking, moments after we had concluded our family stroll.
“Let’s all pray,” my friend pleaded.
In that moment, hours after the perpetrator had fled with Salem, hours after her mother had fought heroically to retrieve Salem from his car, critical hours that must have felt like an eternity for Salem’s parents, praying felt like the only thing we could do.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent that night who needed to be reminded that random child abductions are exceedingly rare. Government statistics report that “stereotypical” kidnappings involving a stranger or someone known marginally by the victim’s family, numbered just 105 between late 2010 and late 2011, the last period for which we have data. (There were almost 74 million children in the U.S. during the same period, for reference.) And there is little reason to believe that random abductions have increased as a percentage of kidnappings since then; online solicitations are far easier to conduct and don’t require the risk of a brazen daylight assault.
As our community thinks about safety and security in the future, it’s important to keep this reality in mind. Our streets are still remarkably safe and we shouldn’t retreat to gated yards and enclosed porches in response. Our strength is in knowing and seeing our neighbors daily, in strolling our sidewalks and playing in our parks regularly, in being a community of people who look out for one another. We were reminded of that by Sunday evening’s community walk.
But knowing the rarity of such horrors was cold comfort in those early morning hours when so many Fort Worth parents sat vigil in their own beds, waiting for their phones to buzz or their social media pages to update with news, any news, of Salem’s return.
As I tossed and turned that night, I felt a heaviness for Salem and her family, but also burdened for my own children, who were on that same street around the same time, who just as easily could have been targeted. I was plagued with questions and uncertainties: If one of my daughters had been grabbed, would I have fought with the same ferocity as Salem’s mom? Was the only reason they weren’t grabbed because they decided to hold my hands that night? Is it safe to continue our evening walks?
The text message that Salem had been found and recovered came early Sunday morning, and like so many moms in Fort Worth that morning, my pleading became thanksgiving to God, the Fort Worth Police Department and the community.
And in my wave of relief, I let go of some of the fears that had kept me awake the night before. We live in an imperfect and unpredictable world, but there’s no community like this one. Indeed, our community isn’t the reason Salem was taken, it’s the reason she was returned to us.
Our family won’t change our evening stroll ritual, either, but I may insist that my daughters hold my hands for a few years longer.