Keeping kids safe in an unpredictable world

One of the best ways to protect children from predators – stranger or otherwise – is to monitor their activities and know who they are with. Even as they get older and more independent, you remain your children's safety net.

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Mother with child generic
Karen Lewis Taylor (Carolina Parent contributing writer)

In an episode of the television detective series "Monk," gruff police captain Leland Stottlemeyer faces a family emergency when his teenage son skips school to attend a rock concert where, as is the case in most "Monk" episodes, a murder has just been committed. The captain, working with concert security to locate the boy, is chagrined to realize that the most recent photo he has of him is from elementary school. The lapse is meant to show Stottlemeyer as an increasingly out-of-touch parent, and we’re expected to chuckle at his discomfort when his son, safely returned, is furious that the outdated photo is plastered all over the venue.

In a time when child abduction is widely identified as most parents’ greatest safety concern, Stottlemeyer’s distress over his son’s disappearance in an unsavory environment isn’t all that funny, and his lack of preparedness – as a police officer, no less – underscores how easy it can be to get caught unprepared. So how can parents avoid making the same mistakes as the fortunately fictional captain?

According to a number of studies examined by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a majority of parents cite stranger abduction as their No. 1 concern for their children’s safety.

“Abduction has always been our biggest concern,” says Julie Ridenour of Holly Springs, who with husband, Rich, is raising stepsons Rick, 22, and Ryan, 19, son J.R., 10, and daughter Grace, 2.

“We’ve never let our (preteen) kids do things like lemonade stands out on the neighborhood corner or walking to the store with friends," Ridenour says. "It just seems like too much of a risk.”

Media coverage of child kidnapping and murder cases fans the fear of “stranger danger,” raising the specter of the violent child predator who vanishes into the night. But statistics from the national organization that helps parents, schools and law enforcement understand and prevent child predation through education and preparedness show that most child abductions – nearly 78 percent in a 1999 study – are committed by a family member trying to deprive a caretaker of custodial rights.

In the remaining, non-family abductions, fewer than half – 45 percent, or 9.9 percent of the total – are committed by someone unknown to the child or family. This means that when the abductor is unrelated to the child, it is just as likely that the family or child knows that person – as a friend, neighbor, babysitter, authority figure or casual acquaintance.

As a result, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children has long advocated against the “stranger danger” concept of child safety education.

“‘Stranger danger’ doesn’t work on a number of levels," says Nancy McBride, the center's national safety director and author of "Child Safety is More Than a Slogan."

"Kids do not get it, adults don’t practice it, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting children and the dangers to children are greater from someone they or their families know than from a random individual,” McBride says.

The bottom line: Child abduction by a stranger is relatively rare, and when parents focus solely on “stranger danger” without considering other threats to their children’s safety, they may unknowingly expose their kids to risk.

Because children don’t have the experience of adults in navigating social situations, understanding what a “stranger” is can be difficult for them. Studies show that children using the “stranger danger” model often believe dangerous strangers will be ugly or that someone who knows their name must be trustworthy.

Furthermore, parents can undermine the message without realizing it: You talk to strangers every time you go out, like making small talk with a sales clerk. As such, the “stranger danger” concept can confuse children, and it doesn’t address risks posed by people who aren’t strangers.

A better strategy, according to the center, is to talk specifically and matter-of-factly about safe behaviors:

  • Don’t venture away from home alone.
  • Make sure a trusted adult knows where you are at all times.
  • Get out of any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Report any troubling occurrence to parents immediately.

Because many children are reluctant to behave rudely or disobey an adult, parents need to give their children permission to ignore an inappropriate overture, such as a request for help, and to run away, yell, even fight if necessary, to escape a potentially dangerous situation.

Parents should also talk about when it is appropriate to ask strangers for help and whom to seek out. If you get separated in a public place, for example, kids should look for a uniformed officer, a store employee with a name tag or a mom with kids. If they’re lost outdoors, they should stay where they are or go to the safest place nearby and make noise to attract attention. Make sure they know their full name, address and phone number so you can be reunited quickly.

“Child safety should be approached in a similar manner to other basic skills,” McBride says, “not relying on fear, but rather teaching children how to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations through an open exchange and practice of the safety concepts.”

Most importantly, assure your children that they can come to you or another trusted adult for help, no matter what the situation.

“We emphasize to J.R. that he can tell us anything and not worry about, say, threats someone might have made to keep him quiet,” Ridenour says. “We say, ‘Your daddy’s a big guy. We’re not worried someone might hurt him. It’s our job to protect you, not the other way around.’”

One of the best ways to protect children from predators – stranger or otherwise – is to monitor their activities and know who they are with. Even as they get older and more independent, you remain your children’s safety net.

If your child spends time at home alone, make sure he or she knows basic safety rules.

“We told our older boys to keep the doors locked, no guests, don’t open the door to anyone, don’t tell anyone you’re home alone,” Ridenour says. “Once we got caller ID, we told them not to even answer the phone if they didn’t recognize the number.”

Set up easy-to-follow instructions about handling emergencies and designate a trusted neighbor as an adult contact in case you can’t be reached.

If they play outside, establish geographic boundaries so they know how far they’re allowed to go and have them tell you where they are at all times. Discourage them from going anywhere alone – there’s more safety in numbers – and be specific about places that are off-limits.

Safety remains an important consideration when teens are out with their friends. Capt. Rickey Padgett of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, who supervises school resource officers assigned to Durham Public Schools, notes that, while being with friends is typically safer than being alone, it does come with risks.

“Out in public, children tend to drop their guard when with friends or in places they visit on a frequent basis,” Padgett says. “Plus, there are many other things that, through peer pressure and a sense of wanting to belong, can cause a lapse in judgment.”

His advice: Continuously assess your child’s level of maturity, know his or her friends, reinforce safe behavior and listen to your instincts.

“You as a parent will know what is good or bad for your children,” Padgett says.

Lastly, it’s critical that you get to know all adults who have access to your children, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Check references of potential child-care providers. Drop in and be visible during your kids’ extracurricular activities. Get to know the families of their friends. Take whatever steps are necessary to make sure your child is safe with these adults. Don’t forget that every state has a sex offender registry through which you can obtain information about registered offenders.

If, despite all efforts at prevention, you find yourself in Stottlemeyer’s position – searching for a missing child – you stand a better chance at being reunited quickly if you notify law enforcement immediately and have information ready when they arrive. Padgett says that police will request a physical description of your child – height and weight, distinguishing characteristics, clothing – and a recent photograph, plus details about who was with your child and where they might be likely to go.

In addition, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children recommends parents keep copies of their children’s fingerprints, samples of their DNA and up-to-date dental records. Certainly, parents never want to be in a situation where this information is needed, but it is better to gather it before an emergency than to be without it during a crisis.

Most important, experts agree, is arming your children with information and know-how, not to scare them, but to make them partners in their own safety.

“Today, kids need to be empowered with positive messages and safety skills that will build their self-esteem and self-confidence while helping keep them safer,” McBride writes. “Kids don’t need to be told the world is a scary place. … Rather, they need to know their parent, guardian or another trusted adult is there for them if they are in trouble, and (that) most adults they encounter in their lives are basically good people.”

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