Could there be a worse nightmare for a parent?
Since Monday, when Amanda Berry escaped the Cleveland home where she’d been imprisoned along with her 6-year-old daughter and two other women, parents everywhere have been just a little more on edge. The story of those captives did not have the worst ending it possibly could have, but what they endured will plague them and their families for years to come. And now we all have a vivid reminder of what could happen to our own kids.
Odds are, it won't. The chances of your child being a victim of a "stereotypical" abduction – whisked away by a stranger with the intent to keep, kill or abuse them – are roughly one in a million. But how do we strike that balance between concerns over keeping our kids safe while allowing them to grow up?
“Common sense needs to prevail,” says Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After, Inc., a Los Angeles-area consultant who teaches safety to parents and children. “When this stuff is in the news, my phone rings off the hook because everyone suddenly thinks there are kidnappers all around. But it’s unusual.”
Here's how unusual:
- Approximately 800,000 children are reported missing annually (and most are found quickly), according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
- About 200,000 are abducted by family members
- About 58,000 are abducted by nonfamily members
- An estimated 115 children are victims of stereotypical kidnappings
“Sometimes we don’t realize it but the danger is living next door,” says Nancy McBride, national safety director at the NCMEC. “We like to think it’s the scary weirdo behind the tree, but in actuality the danger is someone you or they know.”
And every couple of years a story like this dominates the news cycle, rattling parents to their core. In 2011, 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was dismembered and killed by a stranger after taking a wrong turn on his way home from camp in Brooklyn. Then there is Jaycee Dugard, abducted at age 11 while walking to the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and held captive as a sex slave for 18 years.
Experts like McBride and Fitzgerald offer a few tips to parents who are wondering what to do in light of recent events:
Check Up On the Adults in the Area
Parents should be sure to have contact with all of the adults who have contact with their kids. Check references with other families who have used the same childcare providers and be cautious about the amount of information you share with friends, neighbors and coworkers. For access to sex-offender registries visit the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.
“Don’t make assumptions that just because someone is volunteering to be your kids’ soccer coach that it means they’re a great person,” says McBride.
If an adult who is not from your close circle approaches you for time alone with your child, she says, that should be a red flag. Any coach who wants some special one-on-one training time with your child or any teacher who thinks your child needs special lessons or tutoring ought to be scrutinized carefully.
Teach – and Learn – the Rules
Kids themselves can learn what to do by recognizing and avoiding a potentially dangerous situation. Keep it simple by establishing a system of rules. Teach your child that if he is approached by what Fitzgerald calls a “tricky person” or if they get an “uh-oh” feeling, seek out a trusted adult immediately.
Drill them, too, on what they should do if someone they don’t know asks them a question on, for example, a field trip: check with a familiar adult no matter what. If that predator says they’ve already checked for the child, the child needs to know to say “no I am the one who has to check,” that it’s a rule.
“It’s always important to approach it with them as 'safety rules,' because that’s clear cut,” says Fitzgerald. “Kids get through their days with rules and if they see an adult who is breaking a rule, they’ll know what action to take. You don’t have to give them long lectures.”
A recent survey of 8,000 failed abduction attempts found that 83 percent of the targeted kids got away because they knew what to do. They knew the rules. If they were grabbed by a stranger, they knew they had to walk or run or punch or kick or bite or scream their way out of the threat.
The rules aren’t complicated. “The top tricks used by predators still work. They offer candy, money, ask for help in finding a puppy, ask kids if they want a ride,” says McBride. “They’re asking a child any sort of a question at all, hoping to engage the child because we’ve taught our kids to be polite.”
When Can They Walk To School Alone?
Kids 12 and younger should never walk anywhere alone. If they’re 10 or 11 and feel old enough to walk to school without an adult, they should go with at least one friend as part of a buddy system, says Fitzgerald. And plot the route with them ahead of time, pointing out local businesses or neighbors’ homes that are safe if they ever get concerned someone might be following or bugging them.
If you feel they’re old enough for a phone, make a rule about not using it while walking. A distracted child is an easy target, says Fitzgerald.
In the final analysis, though, no amount of drilling or rules-learning can replace the supervision of a caring, trusted adult. “You can teach kids some skills; you can model behavior and rehearse scenarios,” says McBride. “But the bottom line is, nothing beats your supervision and attention.”