There are more than 100,000 attempted child abductions each year. You can’t go into any major department store like Wal-Mart or Target without seeing a bulletin board full of flyers with pictures of missing children. You can’t turn on the TV news or open a newspaper without being bombarded by stories of kidnapped kids. This unfortunately has now become just another day in the life of America. But it does beg the question: How did this happen? How did we – – the American public – – allow this to happen? It is certainly not a matter of being uninformed. John Walsh and many of his cohorts have been drilling this into our minds for decades. One is left to wonder: Why have be not gotten the message? Our children are not safe! Our children may never be totally safe again. Until we open our eyes and recognize that this is an incontrovertible fact, and actually attempt to do something about it, our children will remain at risk. It cannot be a “sometimes” thing. It cannot be a “if such and such happens, then I’ll respond to it” kind of thing. It is an absolutely necessary part of life today. We as parents and even grandparents and guardians must do everything within our power to protect our children.
Gone are the days when children could go outside and play all day without mom and dad worrying that they wouldn’t return. Gone are the days when moms and dads could trust that other neighborhood moms and dads actually provided safe environments in which their children could play. Gone are the days when we assumed that certain kinds of authority figures like priests and teachers were above reproach. We’ve heard horror story after horror story about child molestation at the hands of Catholic priests and we’ve watched female teachers get off with a slap on the wrist for having sex with teenage boys. (NOTE: That is NOT a condemnation of all priests or all teachers since the majority of individuals in those occupations are wonderful, dedicated, caring people.) The fact is that no one and nothing can now be considered 100 percent safe.
However, there are certain things that we can – – and should – – do to help protect our children. The first step is to make certain that we help our children to develop certain qualities such as self-esteem and self-confidence. If we start there, we deny child predators the very things upon which they most often prey. Would be abductors specifically look for children who are not confident and who do not feel themselves worthy of love and attention. Because they do not have these qualities, they often carry themselves differently. They look down when they walk instead of paying attention to what is going on around them. They often will not make eye contact. They tend to walk slowly or shuffle their feet. They often seem defeated. Child predators pick up easily on these traits and then they set about pretending to give those children the very things for which they so deeply long like attention and love (albeit false love).
The next step is to listen to our children. Oddly enough, most children have a built-in alarm system that turns on when something doesn’t feel quite right. We must encourage our children to recognize those feelings and to listen to them. We must also be willing to allow our children to act upon their feelings without fear of recrimination. Let me give you an example. When I was six, I hated to visit my grandmother’s sister. I’d cry. I’d fight. I’d beg. I would do anything and everything that I could possibly think of not to have to go to her house. My mother undoubtedly thought that I was just being a brat because they forced the issue, even making me spend time alone with my great aunt and uncle. But I hated my great-uncle and I was terrified of him. I didn’t exactly know why at the time. I just knew that I didn’t want to be there. And I was a right. When I was seven my great uncle molested me. By that point, I’d been taught – – albeit unintentionally – – that I had no right to deny him anything. I had been forced to go to his house. I had been forced to spend time alone with him. I had been forced to sit on his lap. And all of those things – – close proximity and the long amounts of time in his presence – – had resulted in the most shameful experience of my life. As a child, I figured my parents were telling me that what he was doing was okay. After all, I wasn’t allowed to say “NO.”
We, as parents, grandparents, and guardians, must tellour children that it is all right not to like an adult; that it is all right to tell an adult “NO;” and that it is all right to run away if they feel unsafe for any reason. That “fight or flight” response that children have, is a natural instinct given to them by nature to help protect them. We must support that feeling; not take it away from them.
Next, we must equip ourselves with identification information in case the worst does happen. Every parent, grandparent, and guardian should carry an updated photo of their child with certain key pieces of information written on the back. This should, as a minimum, include the child’s:
- Full name, as well as any nicknames by which they are routinely called;
- Eye and hair color;
- Current height and weight; and
- Medical alert information, birthmarks, scars, or specific physical characteristics.
Additional information that will likely be needed immediately, should a child come up missing includes the child’s:
- Fingerprints and footprints;
- Birth certificate;
- DNA information such as a lock of hair;
- Dental records; and even a
- Passport. (Note: If a parent obtains a passport for his or her child, it makes it nearly impossible for someone else to do the same.)
All of this key information is often referred to as a Child Identification Kit. This kit can be crucial in a myriad of situations such as if a child:
- Disappears or becomes lost;
- Is kidnapped;
- Becomes lost while traveling or in an unfamiliar place;
- Is missing because of accident, natural disaster, or injury; or
- Must be identified in death.
A lot of parents assume that such kits are not necessary until their child is of school age since that is when the child is most likely to be out of the parent’s supervision. However, a Child Identification Kit should actually be developed as soon as the child is born and updated about every six months after that.
Child Identification Kits should be kept in multiple locations and by multiple members of the family whenever possible. Parents should consider keeping one kit at home and one in the trunk of their car. Have grandparents and other guardians (e.g., long-term babysitters outside the house) keep a kit as well. Immediate access to this kit is often critical in life-threatening situations.
The Child Identification Kit can either be hard copy or digital. A hard copy kit will have each crucial piece of information put together and stored in a box or a binder. A digital kit is stored on a computer hard drive, floppy disk, CD, or flash drive. Depending upon the various things included in the kit, one form or the other may be more preferable.
There are also important things that a parent can do to help insure their child’s safety. First, communicate openly with your child so that (s)he will feel comfortable telling you about any problems or troubles they encounter. If the child fears a parent’s anger will be directed at them, they will clam up and say nothing at all which could put them in grave danger. Always let your child know that you respect them and believe in them and that you know they would never accuse anyone wrongfully of anything that would hurt the other person. That way, if something does happen to the child, (s)he automatically assumes that you will believe him/her.
Next, establish clear parameters of what is “right” and what is “wrong” for your child with regard to someone touching their body. Let your child know that it is not okay for anyone to touch him or her in any area that they swimsuit covers. That gives them a very clear picture of what is considered “off limits” and should they be touched there, they know to tell you.
Be sure to walk with your child, the first time, to and from any location (e.g., school, church, or friend’s house) to which they will regularly walk. While walking the route, make note of anything that might smack of danger to your child and help your child determine how to avoid those areas or find a different route to take. However, make certain that (s)he understands that (s)he is not to change that route without your approval and pre-check. Also stress the importance of avoiding short cuts through areas like woods, open fields, back roads, etc. Finally, discuss “safe” locations to go on the route so that the child knows where to run if (s)he feels threatened. And be sure that you take the time to check out those safe locations to make certain that they are safe before you child is forced to use one (if ever).
Encourage your child never to walk anywhere alone. Multiple heads are better than one, particularly in emergency situations. Child predators often avoid children in groups of two or more so numbers count in this instance. Be sure to teach your child how to be observant as (s)he walks and how to be aware of his or her surroundings. Stress that if (s)he thinks (s)he is being followed, to cross the street, yell for assistance, run to the nearest safe location, and/or seek an acceptable authority figure to assist them. In this instance, it is much better for them to be mistaken about being followed than risking that they could be correct.
Establish a family “password” that anyone approved by you to pick up your child from any location will use. Tell your child to never get in the car or go with anyone who cannot give him/her that password; no exceptions! Make certain that the child knows how important it is for him/her not to give that password information to anyone outside of the immediate family. Also make sure that your child never discloses his name, address, or phone number to any stranger – – EVER! Encourage the child to remain far from the vehicle of any stranger so that they don’t risk getting pulled inside. Tell your child to yell “you’re not my mommy” or “you’re not my daddy,” etc. loudly to scare off strangers as they run for safety. Again, in this situation it is better for your child to insult a friend or family member who doesn’t remember the password than to risk the child’s safety getting into an unknown vehicle.
Take the time to role-play possible dangerous situations with your child, like a stranger knocking at the door, to illustrate how they should respond. Children feel more secure if they understand exactly what is expected of them. Therefore, make it as easy for them to understand as you possibly can.
Think about designating a “safe room” in your home for your child to go to if anyone does break in. The room should have multiple locks that your child can easily work and more than one method for your child to sound alarm (e.g., cell phones, alarm bells, security systems, etc.). If possible, make sure that the safe area has a space into which the child can easily fit but the burglar might not be able to reach (e.g., a closet, an attic space, a “child safe” lockable cabinet, etc.
Other key things to keep in mind include:
- Never let your child go into a public restroom alone;
- Pay attention to any threats of abduction by an ex-spouse; and
- Block all Internet use by your child when they are not in your (or someone you have pre-approved) direct presence.
For additional information on how to deal with child safety on the Internet try these sites:
- Safe Kids, a site dedicated to keeping the Internet a safe and fun place for children of all ages;
- Kid Power, a child safety resource that offers parents and children tips for staying safe and making wise decisions with strangers;
- Net Smartz, an interactive website that teaches children and teens how to use the Internet safely and wisely while also seeking to educate parents, guardians, law enforcement, and educators about how to deal with the potential risks of the Internet;
- Microsoft’s Security at Home offers child safety tips for keeping children safe as they research, browse, and plan online; and
- The FBI offers a website that seeks to educate parents and guardians about keeping their children safe online.
I know that we hear this phrase over and over again just about every day, but it is the truth so it bears repeating: “Our children are our future.” It is our responsibility to keep them safe as well as to educate them how to protect themselves. We must take that responsibility seriously!