Protecting Your Child From Strangers
Parents have the ability to empower their children against abduction by educating them about the dangers of strangers and helping their children to help themselves.
There were more than 950,000 missing persons reported in 1998, according to the Agency for Missing and Exploited Children. Of those, the FBI estimates that 85 to 90 percent were children.
Most parents will admit that their greatest fear is their children being abducted. To help prevent this nightmare from becoming a reality, parents can educate their children. Parents already take many precautions to protect their families and their children: installing and maintaining smoke and carbon monoxide detectors; composing and practicing fire escape plans; immunizing their children; requiring that children wear safety belts when in a car and that they wear helmets and pads while riding bicycles, skateboards or in-line skates; and checking Halloween candy before allowing their children to eat it.
However, according to the Agency for Missing and Exploited Children, only 58 percent of parents take part in educating their children about the danger of strangers.
Diana Jones, president and founder of the New York-based Run Yell Tell program, says parents need to accept the responsibility to educate children on what could happen in the event that they are approached by a stranger.
"It is the parent's responsibility to go to whatever length is necessary to avoid placing their child in vulnerable positions," says Jones, who created the Run Yell Tell program to teach children how to avoid becoming the victim of crime, abduction or abuse.
However, abductions, abuse, sexual misconduct, rape and deaths of children do not always occur at the hands of strangers.
Jones says about 50 percent of all crimes committed against children are done so at the hands of someone the child knows or is familiar with.
"Probably the most important thing that a parent can (relay) to a child about abduction is that people who abduct children are not necessarily someone that the child perceives as a stranger," Jones says. "One of the main lessons that I teach children in Run Yell Tell is never go anywhere with anyone -- whether they think the person is a stranger or not -- without checking with the adult who is in charge first."
Parents should begin with basic steps to protect their child in the event of abduction. Keeping recent photos on hand, participating in neighborhood child fingerprint programs and communicating with neighbors and school officials to report any suspicious people are some simple steps. In addition, educating children in schools and at home allows a child to be aware and prepared should a dangerous situation occur.
"Don't be afraid to speak to your children," Jones says. "Education is truly the greatest weapon they can have. Children do not have to be scared to be prepared. Listen to your children and practice with them what they would do in certain situations. Compliment them on their good thinking and good sense. Make them feel comfortable and empowered with the knowledge that they get so that they will feel capable of using it in the event of a problem."
Elissa Sonnenberg, a mother of two in Cincinnati, Ohio, believes in developing and practicing a plan for her children against abductions.
"I make a point of not calling them 'strangers' because people who abduct can appear very nice and can even be someone sort of familiar," Sonnenberg says. "We've done drills on what to say and how to act, to run and scream and get attention from a trusted adult -- a parent, grandparent or teacher. I think that the best shot a parent has to keep their child from being abducted is by teaching them to be alert and to know what to do in case they are approached."
In the event that a child is believed to be missing, parents must act quickly.
"If a parent even has the slightest suspicion that anything has happened to their child they should notify the police immediately," Jones says. "There is absolutely no time to waste -- quick response is imperative. Retracing their child's steps is also extremely important to establish when and where something has occurred, but this should be happening simultaneously to contacting the police."
Often parents believe that things such as missing or abducted children only happen to other families -- not theirs. Yvette De Luca, a mother from Phoenix, Ariz., now knows differently.
"My youngest daughter got lost in our apartment complex one day," De Luca says. "A little boy, the same age as my daughter, talked her into hiding behind a bush outside of our building. I was looking for her because she had gone where I couldn't see her. When I called her she didn't answer. Finally I called the police. They responded very quickly and in full force."
De Luca says her daughter soon came walking up the stairs with a policeman. The little boy had trapped her behind the bush, and put his hand over her mouth so she couldn't answer.
"I told her how badly she scared her stepdad, her sister and me," she says. "I had one of the officers tell her how badly she scared them. I still talk to her about it. I want to make sure she understands how dangerous what she did is."
Protecting children against things that can harm them is something parents do instinctively. But there are times when parents are not going to be there to stop harm in its tracks.
"Children should always be supervised, or when older children do things as part of a group such as after-school programs, sport team participation, camps ... a responsible, known adult should be present," Jones says.
In addition, babysitters or childcare providers should be checked out thoroughly and any odd changes in behavior or claims of suspicious occurrences should never be ignored, she says.
Jones says children don't have to be scared to be prepared. However, children may often feel invincible or untouchable and a slight scare may be needed to offer a minimal dose of reality.
"Parents should use whatever is necessary to get the point across," Jones says. "But this information does not need to be frightening to be effective. ... Parents should use proactive educational measures to protect their children against abduction. To an abductor, an aware and prepared child is the greatest defense against his or her attempts."