“Attention is the key to prevention”
“Don’t take candy from strangers”
All of us have heard these warnings. We learned them from school and from our parents. The problem with these warnings is to a child what is a stranger. I asked my son, in his early elementary years, how does he tell if someone is a stranger. He told me it was someone he did not know and he wore ragged clothes and was dirty. I was a little surprised and explained that a stranger could really be anyone and has nothing to do with their cleanliness or their clothes. We then went through a couple of examples of who is stranger and who is not a stranger.
Unfortunately, children are at risk of abduction and sexual victimization, and most of the individuals who perpetrate these crimes are not perceived as strangers by their victims. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has reviewed research findings and its own collected information for the purpose of evaluating long-standing child-protection messages. It is their intent to provide a basis for creating more effective messages for children.
It is obvious that young children don’t have the skills to evaluate whether someone is a stranger or not. Dr. David Warden, psychologist at the University of Strathclyde, said “No matter how intelligent the child, he or she does not see the world through skeptical adult eyes . . . Children live very much in the present. They can’t foresee someone’s actions or judge their intentions, certainly not at primary school age. They have a very weak understanding of motives, they simply take someone at face value. The concept of stranger danger is difficult, because it clashes with the social constraints on children to be polite to adults. Research suggests that children don’t really know what a stranger is. They feel that once someone tells his name, he ceases to be a stranger.”
On the HBO special “How to Raise a Street Smart Child” the following descriptions of strangers were provided by children.
- “A stranger sometimes wears a hat . . . sometimes a black or brown jacket and is a guy with a beard . . . some hair and a moustache and some glasses.”
- “I think a stranger is like . . . a punk rocker that drinks beer all day and sits around in a vacant lot.”
- “A stranger looks mean and ugly . . . a creep.”
- “Big . . . bigger than you, bigger than most people.”
Children also take cues from the adults around them. If the parents is talking or interacting with someone, they must not be a stranger. Or, the neighbor near their home is not a stranger, because the child “knows” him.
Who are safe strangers?
Safe strangers are people children can ask for help when they need it. Police officers and firefighters are two examples of very recognizable safe strangers. Teachers, principals, and librarians are adults children can trust too, and they are easy to recognize when they’re at work. But make sure that you emphasize that whenever possible, children should go to a public place to ask for help.
You can help your children recognize safe strangers by pointing them out when you’re out in your town. Also show your children places they can go if they need help, such as local stores and restaurants and the homes of family friends in your neighborhood.
Who are the offenders?
A research study was conducted at a treatment facility for individuals that had sexually assaulted a children (Groth et al, 1978). The study found that 29 percent of the offenders were strangers to their child victims. 71 percent of the offenders knew the child. And 14 percent of the offenders were related to the victim.
Dr. Gene Abel of Emory University in Atlanta examined a group of sex offenders and concluded that the typical sexual offender against children is male, begins molesting by age 15, engages in a variety of deviant behavior, and “molests an average of 117 youngsters, most of whom do not report the offense.” Based on research offenders seek jobs or circumstances that gives them access to children.
The victimization of children has been stressed in our media today. Nancy Grace of HLN has made a career of talking about abducted children or victimized children. Based on research most parents and children fear being kidnapped. In a 1997 survey conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates Poll, the top worry of parents is the fear that their child might be kidnaped or become the victim of violent crime. In the same survey, parents’ fear that their child might become a victim of sexual abuse ranked fourth, just behind serious accident or illness (Kantrowitz, 1997).
Armed with a more accurate picture of those who victimize children, we can provide more effective information to families to help parents keep their children safe. The challenge is to create awareness of the risk faced by children and to avoid incomplete or inaccurate messages. For generations, our fundamental messages to children have contained three basic premises:
“Don’t take candy from strangers.” As indicated above, in at least two of three cases, the offender is not a stranger in the mind of the child. Usually, the victim and offender know each other, at least casually. Child molesters often seek legitimate access to children and then victimize them through a process similar to seduction. This reality does not make the message wrong, only grossly inadequate in providing protection for children, who need more comprehensive information about the dangers they are far more likely to face.
“Don’t be a tattletale.” One of the most stigmatizing names that a child can be called is tattletale. From their earliest moments, we consciously and subconsciously encourage children not to communicate. Thousands of children are hidden victims, and the key to prevention and detection is communication. Children must be taught that if something is happening in their lives that they do not feel right about or that makes them feel uncomfortable, they must tell somebody they trust.
“You’re just a kid. Be respectful to adults; they know what they’re doing.” With this final message, we face a delicate challenge. All parents want their children to be polite and respectful to adults. Our message is not that we want children to be disrespectful, but that we must empower them to realize that they have the right to say no to those who would abuse their authority as adults. As educational consultant Stephanie Meeghan aptly expresses during many of the training sessions for teachers that she has held since 1988, “We must make children aware that their safety is more important than good manners.”
I researched various websites for useful information and contact information on this topic. The following is a compilation of that information. Every parent should be aware of these services and contacts.
Child safety tips:
- Check out babysitters, suspicious people in the neighborhood and anyone you hire to work in your home. Many states list convicted sexual predators on special Web sites. You can obtain information at the FBI’s Web site or by calling your local FBI office. Get references of people you want to hire and be sure to check them out.
- Never leave garage door openers or spare house keys “hidden” in spots where they might easily be found.
- Tell your children that if someone stops next to them in a car, tell them to run away toward the rear of the car since backing up fast is difficult.
- If youngsters are on a bike, hold it between them and the abductors car. If they are pulled into a car, they should jump into the backseat as soon as possible and try to escape through the window.
- Develop code words for anyone you trust to pick up your children and teach your little ones the code. Tell them not to ride or go with anyone who doesn’t know the code.
- Know the places your children play, learn about their friends and friends’ families – especially before they go to people’s homes to play.
- Show children safe places in your neighborhood to run to if they feel threatened – the home of a trusted friend, the local police station or firehouse.
- Tell children to trust their instincts. “If they think something’s wrong with someone they meet, they should run away.”
- Warn children not to fall for common lures such as: needing help finding a lost puppy. Some molesters tell youngsters they are cute and want to take their picture, or that they have a toy or candy for them. When children hear these approaches from a stranger, they should run fast to a safe place.
- If kids get lost while shopping they should go to the nearest security guard or cashier. DO NOT ASK A SHOPPER THEY DON’T KNOW AND DO NOT GO INTO THE PARKING LOT TO SEARCH FOR YOU.
- Children can make a potential abductor panic and flee by screaming at the top of their lungs, “He’s kidnapping me!!!!!,” or “Fire” will quickly bring attention to the attempted abduction.
- Tell children to walk on sidewalks, as far away from the curb as possible against the flow of traffic so they can see who’s approaching. That will make it more difficult for them to be surprised by a driver and quickly snatched.
- Never let your little children use a public restroom by themselves.
- Warn older children never to hitchhike.
- Avoid putting your children’s names on their garments and possessions. When children hear their names called, they let their guard down, thinking it’s someone they know.
- For identification purposes, take a lock of your child’s hair for DNA.
McGruff safety rules for children:
- Say no and go tell a trusted adult if someone tries to touch you where it makes you uncomfortable.
- Always ask for your parents’ permission before you go anywhere.
- Always tell your parents where you will be playing.
- Say no if a stranger asks you to go with him or take a ride.
- Say no if a stranger asks you to help find something.
- Say no if a stranger asks you to go into his house.
- Always walk and play outside with a friend.
- Never take shortcuts or play in lonely places.
- If someone bothers you, tell a trusted adult.
- Never hitchhike!
- Don’t give information over the phone to anyone you don’t know.
Any parent’s worst nightmare is having their child taken away from them. The media are continually flooded with headlines of missing and exploited children. Although these crimes are real, families and children do not have to live in fear but we should be attentive and prepared. A families best weapon against such a tragedy is with communication and proper preparation to respond to dangerous conditions. By following our Five Steps to Prevent Child Abduction you can empower yourself and your child with knowledge, tools and awareness.
1. Educate Children
One of the biggest ways you can prevent your child from being abducted is by simply teaching them the basics. For younger children that includes their full name, home address, phone numbers, and basic rules (never talk to strangers, never leave the side of an adult, etc.).
You should teach your children these basic rules:
- Always tell your parents where you will be.
- Never get into vehicles without your parent’s permission.
- Don’t take shortcuts or go to places where you will be alone.
- If you get separated from your parents, find a store or police officer to help you. Don’t go looking!
- The child should always tell you if someone makes them uncomfortable or scared.
Going over these rules and making sure your child knows their basic information can be a great deterrent from an abduction.
2. Be Involved in Activities
If you’re able, you should try to involve yourself in some of your child’s activities. Simple things like offering to coach, chaperoning a field trip or eating lunch with your child can both give you a better insight into their life and help increase your child’s trust in you. Use this list of parent/child activities for ideas to spend more time with your child. When you’re around them try to learn more about their habits, friends, and events.
3. Know and Keep Detailed Records
This is single most important step in the event that an abduction occurs. 75% of all child abductions happen by a family member or acquaintance so it is important to have accurate details about the people who your child comes in contact with. Also the first few hours are the most important in recovering you child. Use a service like InstantAmber to keep a record of your child’s details. Using a service like InstantAmber allows you to archive important information regarding your child — including their habits and relationships — so in that time of need it will be instantly available to state and federal law enforcement.
4. Prepare Child for the “What If”
In the event that something does happen to your child, he/she needs to be prepared. Teach them a few rules to maximize their chances of escape or getting help by teaching them to:
- Scream “FIRE”. People are de-synthesized to hearing “Help”.
- Try to escape and run if they are in danger.
- Be persistent on looking for a way to contact someone.
Try not to instill fear into your child, just help them understand that they have a choice of action and are never helpless.
5. Listen to your Child
Finally, just listening to your child could be a wonderful deterrent to future problems. Ask them often about their fears and take them seriously. Children need to trust you and never feel embarrassed with anything they share.
By using these 5 Steps to Prevent Child Abduction you can prepare you family for the worst through education and having a plan of action.
Keep these other tips in mind, too:
- Make sure younger kids know their names, address, phone number including area code, and who to call in case of an emergency. Review how to use 911 or a local emergency number. Discuss what to do if they get lost in a public place or store — most places have emergency procedures for handling lost kids. Remind them that they should never go to the parking lot to look for you. Instruct kids to ask a cashier for help or stand near the registers or front of the building away from the doors.
- Point out the homes of friends around the neighborhood where your kids can go in case of trouble.
- Be sure your kids know whose cars they may ride in and whose they may not. Teach them to move away from any car that pulls up beside them and is driven by a stranger, even if that person looks lost or confused. Develop code words for caregivers other than mom or dad, and remind your kids never to tell anyone the code word. Teach them not to ride with anyone they don’t know or with anyone who doesn’t know the code word.
- If your kids are old enough to stay home alone, make sure they keep the door locked and never tell anyone who knocks or calls they are home alone.
Locate Predators in Your Area
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- National/State sex offender registry, linking you to each states registry website.
- Family Watch Dog
Quick and easy identification of registered sex offenders in any neighborhood, including map views, offender photos and conviction information.
U.S. Office of Justice Programs
Get information about Amber Alerts and find out about current Amber Alerts nationwide.
Phone: (202) 307-0703
A convenient portal to Amber Alert information on a state-by-state basis.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Research missing children or report a sighting of a missing child.
Phone: (800) 843-5678
Find the Children
A registry of missing children. Also the coordinating agency for the Child Abduction Task Force.
Phone: (888) 477-6721
Get Help & Report Abuse
US Department of Health & Human Services
Report abuse or get your questions answered.
Phone: (800) 422-4453
Child Welfare Information Gateway
Search by state to find out what local agency you should call to report child abuse, including sexual abuse.
Phone: (800) 394-3366
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Find out what to say or do if you discover that a child has been sexually abused.
Phone: (202) 966-7300
Report suspected child exploitation, including child pornography on the Internet.
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Anne Arundel County, MD: Citizen Information Center, Tips for prevent child abductions.
Keeping Children Safe: Rhetoric and Reality. by Ernest E. Allen
Preventing Abductions, Kids Health from Neours
5 Steps to Prevent Child Abduction, Instant Amber, October 2008
McGruff Safe Kids Identification Kit.
Stranger Danger Quiz