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Halloween safety important, but some say irrational fears abound

Melissa Stange, of Mitchell, with her daughter, Alexandra, participates in a trunk-or-treat event Friday evening in the Mitchell Middle School parking lot.(Chris Huber/Republic)

Sunday brings the day of ghosts and goblins, candy gorging and all-out youthful fun known as Halloween.

But over the years, a holiday that used to be full of tricks and treats, fun and spooks has been partly turned into a day of worry by parents for their kids' safety.

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids: Giving our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry," addresses the issue of Halloween and what she sees as the irrational fears related to it.

"... That's Halloween for you," she writes. "A chance to be afraid of absolutely everything ... if you're a parent.

"Halloween is just the perfect example of how a fun, even revered, childhood activity has been turned into an orgy of worrying, warning, spending, obsessing and all-out fun bludgeoning ..."

Parents' worries are far spread and include poisoned candy and children getting run over by cars, suffocating in Halloween costumes that are too tight, tripping in those that are too loose, and getting scooped up by a sex offender, Skenazy writes. While some of these issues are serious and could and do happen to children, according to Skenazy, the likelihood of them all happening on just Halloween is remote.

Skenazy blames the media for the increase in parents' irrational fears of Halloween.

"The media acts as an echo chamber, constantly repeating the warnings without examining whether they make sense," Skenazy said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. "No more sex offenses occur on Halloween even before laws were started. No child has been poisoned by candy. It sounds good to pretend you care about kids by announcing that you only want their safety. But if you care about your kids, get your facts straight."

The laws Skenazy refers to are stay-at-home laws, enforced by various cities and states, that prevent registered sex offenders from leaving their homes -- or in some cases, even turning on their porch lights -- on Halloween.

So, how safe are trick-or-treaters in Mitchell, a community with a population of around 14,000?

According to Lyndon Overweg, Mitchell's chief of Public Safety, pretty safe.

In Overweg's 22 years of working at the Mitchell Department of Safety, he said there have been no reports of children being poisoned by their Halloween candy or injured while trick-or-treating.

He said many of the fears associated with Halloween are unnecessary.

"Common sense comes into play and that should prevail," Overweg said.

The majority of calls his department receives during the holiday are reports of vandalism and pumpkin-smashing.

Skenazy cites research from Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Best studied crime reports as far back as 1958. In her book, Skenazy quotes Best: "The bottom line is that I cannot find any evidence that any child has ever been killed or seriously hurt by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating."

But that doesn't stop parents from worrying.

Trish Delaney, vice president of marketing at Avera Queen of Peace Health Services in Mitchell, said warnings over the years that have planted ideas in parents' heads were just a "gimmick, really." Delaney can recall 20 years ago, when the idea of X-raying candy before letting children eat it was the norm.

"It was a marketing thing," she said. "I remember not being comfortable with it."

Instead of warning parents of tampered candy, Delaney said for any trick-or-treating event at assisted living facilities or the hospital in Mitchell, the staff takes responsibility in checking over the treats before handing them out.

Rebecca Driedger, of Mitchell, will be taking both her 1-year-old and 4-year-old trick-or-treating this year.

Driedger takes precautions with her children.

"I think there's more parents that walk with their children than in the past. I think it's a good thing. Times have just changed," she said. "And it doesn't hurt to supervise as the kids get older and they want to get into pranks."

But as Skenazy likes to point out, "because of these misplaced fears, putting cops on the beat and knocking on sex offenders' doors puts less of them on the street."

Skenazy challenges parents to Google cases of candy poisoning and other Halloween-related crimes.

"They will find none," she said.

Because of the increase in safety concerns, some communities now offer controlled trick-or-treating events like trunk-or-treats or Halloween parties that have adult supervision.

Controlled Halloween events, such as a trunk-or-treat, are what Skenazy said might take the fun out of Halloween.

Delaney disagrees.

"I don't know if it's taken the fun out of it," she said. "Certainly people can go door-to-door and homes are welcoming them with their lights on and candy purchased, so the fun is there."

For Driedger, events like trunk-or-treats or the Haunted Village at the Dakota Discovery Museum each year give her children more opportunities to wear their costumes. And at trunk-or-treats, many of the adults are dressed up, too.

"She gets to see the grown-ups dressed up, and they pass out pencils and tattoos, as well (not just candy)," she said.

Sarah Beckstrom, a mother of three from Mitchell, likes the interaction between community members and friends at Halloween parties. She said it takes the emphasis off of just getting candy.

Beckstrom accompanies her sons -- 1, 4 and 6 -- while they trick-or-treat. But she's not too worried that her children will be in harm's way.

"I think Mitchell is pretty safe," she said. And as far as scouring through the loot of candy her kids will bring in, she doesn't.

"I just don't have those concerns in this town."

She does, however, accompany her children from house to house.

And that's OK, too, Skenazy said. She advises that children should be wearing some sort of reflector tape or a glow stick so they are more visible when walking outside in the dark.

She simply wants to be there with her kids, and because of their young age, has them wear glow sticks, too.

Overweg agrees and does stress specific safety concerns.

"With kids especially, we just warn them to not go into houses of strangers. When crossing the streets, look both directions," he said.

When Beckstrom trick-or-treated as a child, she said there wasn't as much concern for Halloween safety.

"I know when I went trick-or-treating we went with my friends all over town. But I want to be there with my kids. With reading the newspaper about kids being abducted, you just never know," she said.

Although Beckstrom and Driedger are concerned, they understand the holiday is still one meant for fun.

"It's a favorite holiday of so many kids," Driedger said. "There are simple measures you can take to keep kids safe. Just don't lose sight that it's supposed to be fun."

Skenazy echoes Driedger and adds: "I'm taking my kids trick-or-treating and I'm not going to check their candy. I'm going to eat their candy."