UPDATE: Police have cleared the couple of all charges. Read the update here.
A mom influencer who claimed on Instagram this week that her children were nearly kidnapped at a local craft store has received an outpouring of support, as well as skepticism, on social media after her videos went viral.
Now, her local police department in the Northern California city of Petaluma is speaking out about the viral videos, saying that the story Katie Sorensen told her Instagram followers included information that they were not made aware of in her initial report, and they currently don't have enough information to bring a case.
Sorensen, who runs an Instagram account called @motherhoodessentials, catapulted herself into the social media spotlight this week with two Instagram videos she posted to her page. At the time, she had a smaller following of about 6,000 people, according to Social Blade.
In the videos, Sorensen said her two children had been the victims of an "attempted kidnap" at a Michaels craft store the week prior. Sorensen said she felt uncomfortable sharing the incident but wanted to help other parents remain vigilant.
"I think right now we are so distracted by everything that is going on in the world that we kind of have our guards up about masks and wanting to keep our children safe that way that we are forgetting the most important way to keep them safe, and that is with us and to not have them taken," she said.
Sorensen told BuzzFeed News in a brief phone call that she wanted to share her experience because she wanted parents to feel empowered to trust their gut instinct.
“I posted it simply to raise awareness," she said.
Sorensen has since made the two videos and her account private, but KTVU reporter Henry K. Lee shared a part of one on Twitter.
The Petaluma Police Department said in a statement that Sorensen reported the incident on Dec. 7, alleging she was "followed inside the store" by a man and woman who had "made comments concerning the appearance of [her] children."
"The couple was said to have followed the woman to her car, where the couple lingered near the stroller as the woman placed her children in the vehicle," police added.
KTVU reported that Sorensen said in her video that the couple had discussed the "features" of her children, and one seemed to "reach out, as if to grab the stroller" at one point. Sorensen said she wished she had done more, but she froze.
“I saw these people, they didn't look necessarily clean-cut,” she told KTVU. “I felt uncomfortable around them, and instead of making them uncomfortable with my discomfort, I chose to remain in my discomfort.”
Sorensen's videos soon went viral on Instagram, being viewed, according to KTVU, more than 2 million times. Her Instagram account now has more than 80,000 followers, although she has gone private.
The story not only gained traction among worried moms online, but it hit home in Petaluma, the home of Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old girl who was abducted from her home and murdered in 1993. Marc Klaas, Polly's father, who has since become a world-renowned child safety advocate, even commented on the case for KTVU's nightly news broadcast on Monday night.
As the story picked up steam, Petaluma police released more details on the case. According to investigators, they were unable to find the couple after responding to the scene, and Sorensen had told them she did not want anyone to get arrested.
"At the time this incident was initially reported, there was insufficient evidence to establish that a crime had occurred," police said.
On Monday, investigators said they learned of a "social media post made by the reporting party in which she recounted and elaborated upon the aforementioned incident." According to police, Sorensen "included information that had not been initially presented to the Petaluma Police Department" in the Instagram video.
The police department released a photo of the couple that Sorensen identified as the suspects. Police said they had followed up on other leads. However, the department added, "inconsistencies between the two accounts of the incident need to be resolved before criminal charges can be considered."
However, Petaluma Police Sgt. Ed Crosby told BuzzFeed News the department's statement shouldn't be interpreted as casting doubt on Sorensen's story. He said the department released the statement because it wants the public to come forward if someone has any new information, as police need to clear up the inconsistencies before bringing a case.
He declined to elaborate on those inconsistencies, saying he doesn't want to "try the case in the court of public opinion."
Sorensen said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that she has been communicating with police and is thankful they are taking it seriously.
"As with any ongoing investigation, there are pieces of information that are not shared in a post. And as with anything on social media, words will be used out of context, criticized, and questioned," she said. "I do not wish to jeopardize the work of the local police department, nor do I wish to further any conversations that are fueled by negativity and judgement."
If Sorensen's account of being stalked for her children sounds familiar, that's because several similar stories have gone viral in recent years. There was an Oklahoma woman who said her daughter was almost kidnapped in Target in 2016. Another woman claimed a similar thing happened with her infant daughter in Kansas in 2018. And then there was the mom who said a stranger tried to snatch her kids from an Ikea in California in 2017.
Human trafficking, especially of children, has also been a hot topic on social media over the past several months. Believers in the QAnon mass delusion have been slowly spreading their beliefs — that the world is run by a group of evil, leftist human traffickers — through platforms like Instagram, most insidiously through a spinoff movement called #SaveTheChildren.
After a conspiracy theory that Wayfair was selling trafficked children through fake furniture listings went viral over the summer, thousands of mothers have been constantly fed a narrative online that their children could be nabbed at a moment's notice. However, many of the #SaveTheChildren posts are spreading "misinformation including false numbers about the problem" of child sex trafficking, according to advocacy group Polaris.
In reality, a stranger kidnapping a child from a public place is extraordinarily rare, accounting for fewer than 10% of child trafficking cases, the group said.
"What most people think they know about child sex trafficking generally involves stories — young girls and boys being kidnapped by strangers, forced into windowless vans, then driven to another city or state where they are kept drugged and chained in a brothel," Polaris wrote on its blog. "While situations like these do exist, they are more of an exception than the rule."
The children who are most likely to be trafficked are those who are economically or socially vulnerable, such as those who are living in poverty, experiencing homelessness, being physically or sexually abused, or have a drug addiction, the group added.
Sorensen told BuzzFeed News that she has been completely overwhelmed by the positive and negative reactions to her videos. She said she wants people criticizing her actions to acknowledge that "faced with a traumatic experience, it is impossible to function at full capacity."
She also denied having any ulterior motives for the video and added that she had never expected it to go viral.
"I had no intentions or underlying motives for sharing my story, other than to encourage fellow parents to always remain vigilant," she said. "I hope my family and our local law enforcement will be given the respect and support we each deserve as we continue on."