Give Your Kids the Tools They Need to Stay Safe
By Lynda R. Exley
Give your kids the tools they need to stay safe!
Safety Talk: 3 Basic Rules
Barely a month passes without a news report of a child being abducted. These stories capturing the hearts of parents across the country. And, all-too-often we’re left to grieve the tragic conclusion to the story. While we cannot bring these children back to their families, we can take action to ensure that our own children and their friends have the information and tools they need to stay safe.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART), an estimated 58,200 children were victims of non-family abduction in the United States in 2002. “Non-family” means the perpetrators were friends, acquaintances or strangers, but not family members of the victim. The captors sexually assaulted nearly 50 percent of these children.
Of the 58,200 abducted children, 115 were “serious crimes” entailing stereotypical kidnappings by complete strangers or slight acquaintances. These 115 were transported 50 or more miles away, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or in the case of 46 of these children, killed. In 1988, the estimated stereotypical kidnapping numbered more than 200 annually.
Although the number of abductions appears to have decreased over the years, the 1988 NISMART report is based upon victim and caretaker accounts in a national survey. Whereas, the 2002 report reflects only police records of reported child abductions. The current report acknowledges that many abductions go unreported, which may explain the numeric difference between the two NISMART reports.
Fortunately, parents can help prevent their children from becoming one of these frightening statistics. Experts agree that parents must not be reluctant about discussing the possibility of abduction with their children.
“Parents need to communicate with their children constantly and not be afraid to talk about this topic. Be proactive, look ahead and prepare your children for situations,” says Bill Malatin, a volunteer instructor at Dignity Memorial Escape School, a national abduction prevention program. “Help children make smart choices which enhance their safety. We use the phrase, ‘Be smart, not scared.’”
According to crime prevention experts, there’s more to educating children these days than reviewing the once lauded “stranger danger” advice. Instead, parents must teach their kids how to identify and avoid dangerous behaviors and improper actions.
“We really don’t do the ‘stranger danger’ anymore, because a lot of the problems, especially recently, have come from people who the child is familiar with,” explains Mindy Marino, a crime prevention specialist for the Mesa, Arizona, Police Department.
She uses an example of a letter carrier: “Every day the same guy delivers the mail. And, at holiday time, mom bakes cookies and gives them to the postman as a thank-you because he is such a nice guy. Well, now the kid thinks that the postman is a friend because he’s not a stranger. He’s there every day. Mom even gave him a present. He’s a nice guy. But we don’t know that!” emphasizes Marino. “Parents have to let kids know who is a stranger and who is not . . . So anybody and everybody needs to be considered a ‘stranger’ until the family as a whole knows them, and mom or dad has given permission that this person is a friend of the family.”
During an Escape School workshop, children were asked to describe a possible kidnapper. Overwhelmingly, kids said kidnappers would be dirty, unshaven, grungy males. The children perceived “good people” as appearing well-dressed in nice business suits and possibly carrying briefcases. Other children thought “good people” would be women who “smiled a lot.” All children agreed that “good strangers” were friendly. Such assumptions are dangerous misconceptions.
The truth, according to Bob Stuber, a former police officer who developed the Escape School program and wrote Missing Stranger Abduction: Smart Strategies to Keep your Child Safe, is that you can’t tell a good stranger from a bad one based on appearance. He says children need to be warned that kidnappers come in all sizes, ages, sexes and social dispositions. Other children have also been known to lure victims to perpetrators.
What to Tell Children
Rather than focusing on “stranger danger,” crime prevention experts advise parents to talk with their children about threatening behavior in situations:
• Warn your children that adults should never ask kids for help with directions, finding a lost pet or mailing a letter.
• Tell them never to accept anything from someone who has not been formally acknowledged as a “family friend.” Older kids are especially vulnerable to abductors who use the ploy that they are a movie producer or magazine photographer who wants to take their picture and help them get “discovered.”
• Tell children that if they suspect someone in a car is following them, they should run in the opposite direction than the car is headed – even if the driver pulls out a gun.
“The person is not trying to hurt our child at that moment,” explains Marino. “But once an abduction happens, now they have a living witness, so it’s much easier to do something with that living witness than let them go.” Marino recommends that the child run as fast as possible in a serpentine, or snakelike, manner to make it more difficult for a bullet to strike. However, Marino again emphasizes that the likelihood of perpetrators shooting a gun is almost nil due to the perpetrator’s fear of being noticed.
It is also important to warn youths never to go anywhere with someone their parents haven’t specifically given them permission to accompany. Give children a code word that only you and they know. In this way, if someone unexpected shows up to pick him or her up from school or soccer practice, the adult has to say the code word. If the adult doesn’t know it, then the child should not leave with them.
Children should also be told to trust their inner feelings and run away from situations or people that make them feel nervous – even if it means being rude to an adult or authority figure.
The Escape School's Malatin advises telling children it’s okay to “break the rules,” in dangerous situations. For example, if someone is in their home, trying to take them away, it’s okay to break a window to get someone’s attention. Or, if someone is trying to drag them out of a store, it’s okay to knock things off the shelf and cause a scene to get help.
A few of the escape techniques Stuber developed for Escape School may seem radical to parents. For example, the Escape School video suggests that children who have been pulled into the front seat of an abductor’s car could jump into the perpetrator’s lap, scream and kick and honk the horn to get attention. Or, if the car is stopped at a traffic light, the child could try accelerating the gas pedal causing the car to hit the vehicle in front of them, which would bring attention to the situation.
It sounds extreme, but as Marino puts it, “I’d rather have my child in a car accident when the police are going to respond, somebody’s going to stop and help, or the car’s going to be disabled, than have my child disappear with a person.”
In his safety book, Stuber suggests showing children how they can disconnect any exposed wires in the trunk of a car should they be locked in by an abductor. This may cause the tail or break lights to fail, which might bring the police into the picture. If they can’t dislocate any wires, they may be able to kick at the section of the trunk where the lights are. The repetitious kicking might cause the lights to fail.
If a child is being pursued in a parking lot, it’s possible to bring someone to their aid by slamming their hands on the hoods of every car they pass. One car alarm won’t turn too many heads, but a parking lot full should.
Other abduction prevention techniques covered in Escape School include telling a child who hears someone breaking into the house to call 911 and say, “I need help.” They should not hang up the phone, but neither should they wait for a response. Instead, they should set the phone down, run and hide in the safest place they can find. When 911 is contacted, help will automatically be dispatched to the address of the caller as long as the phone is left off the hook.
Precautions for Parents
Several resources suggest equipping children with identification bracelets they can discretely leave in a place where they know it will be found should they get abducted. Parents should avoid clothing or toys with their child’s name on it. They should never leave a child alone in a public place, stroller or car, not even for a minute. Young children should always be accompanied to public restrooms, on door-to-door activities such as school fundraisers, and in crowded public venues, such as baseball parks, malls and concert halls.
Parents need to share this information with their children, and share it often, but do it in a way that is empowering instead of frightening. Teach your children to think smart, not scared, just in case they ever find themselves in a dangerous situation with a possible kidnapper.
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children – Site includes information on child safety, statistics on child abductions, instructions on what to do if your child is missing, profiles of missing children and links to community resources.
IDEA: The next time you’re looking for a good topic for a mother’s club or PTO presentation, consider a child abduction prevention program. Call your local or regional police department for a referral to a good (and usually free) program.
Lynda Exley is a former editor for United Parenting Publications.