It was the saddest news photo of the week. A California mother fighting tears, her eyes squeezing shut, her lips quivering. She was displaying a picture of her 5-year-old daughter, who had been abducted hours earlier by a stranger in a green car. The news photo captured the tragic symbolism: a mother trying to hold her daughter up, even as she was falling apart.

In the end, her world collapsed anyhow. The little girl, Samantha Runnion, was found the next day, naked and abused and dead on a hillside. Five years old. The killer left her like a gum wrapper.

I once saw a woman with her child on a leash. The harness held the kid across the arms and chest. They walked along, like a pet and its owner, and I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen.

Now I’m not so sure.

How far is a safe distance from your children today? Five feet? Ten feet? Arm’s length? Attached? Do you cradle them from the moment they enter the world and not let go until they graduate from high school?

“The good news,” said Ernest Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “is that the number of these cases is coming down.”

The bad news is, they’re still around.

A sicko in a car

Samantha Runnion was not hanging with a bad crowd. She wasn’t walking home late at night. She was playing with another friend on the lawn in front of her apartment building. She was within yelling distance of her grandmother, who was in charge of her at the time.

So is it too dangerous now to play on your front lawn? The killer in the car pulled up and reportedly asked the two girls if they could help him find his lost puppy. According to the friend, Samantha approached the man’s car. That was all. The rest was the lowlife’s doing. He popped out, grabbed her and threw her inside, even as she screamed to her friend, “Call my Mommy!” That’s pretty good awareness for a 5-year-old. We shouldn’t have to ask any more.

But Samantha was taken anyhow, despite being in front of her own home, despite playing with a known friend, and sometime in the next 24 hours, this sicko did sexual things to her that would make a pacifist seek a weapon. Then he suffocated her. Then he left her on a hillside, as police put it, “like a calling card.”

And now her mother, holding the photo, and her father, who said, “I had the most wonderful moments of my life with her,” are left to wonder if they had done something differently, if they had had her on a leash, if they had locked her in her room . . .

Who’s safe and secure?

When I was Samantha’s age, I was free to roam the block. I walked to friends’ houses. I wobbled on a bicycle. I accompanied older kids to play kick ball a few streets away. Yes, I knew to “never talk to strangers,” but it wasn’t something that presented itself. Besides, there were always adults looking out their windows or watching from their porches.

Today, I would be driven from one activity to another. I would have a chaperon to go to the backyard. Who knows? I might be on a leash. My neighbors couldn’t be counted on because they’d be working or traveling or divorced or mesmerized by a computer or a television.

What happened to little Samantha may happen less, but it still happens too much. And although we know about her, and about 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Utah and 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in San Diego, there are too many cases that get no attention.

“You don’t need to lock your children in a room, but you do have to be cautious,” Allen said. Cautious, I think? Of the front lawn?

Yes. The sick answer is yes. The world has shrunk for children and so has the breezy sense of trust that came with it. We have to tell them, and it is a sad piece of news to deliver. Almost as sad as that photo of hope, slowly drowning in a mother’s tears.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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