Parents need to update the advice they've been giving kids to keep them safe. Just warning them about "stranger danger" isn't enough anymore.
Generations of parents have told their children "Don't talk to strangers" and considered the job done. It's a dangerous and outdated assumption. "Parents need to do more. And they can," says Kenneth Wooden, founder and president of Child Lures Prevention, a sexual abuse and abduction prevention program based in Shelburne, Vermont. Keeping your eyes open, staying vigilant, and trusting your instincts about people are the first, best lines of defense against predators, who may be closer than most people think.
The stranger who grabs a child and takes off with her in his car may rivet parents to the national news, but it's not the norm. Most children are victimized by someone they know. And most of the time, those unfortunate children are targeted by sexual predators who are intent on physical and emotional abuse.
Who are the predators? Just take a look around. "They put themselves in places where they know they're going to have proximity to kids," says John J. Sullivan Jr., founder and former chief of the Child Pornography Enforcement Program, U.S. Customs Service, Washington, D.C. Besides the fact that the majority are males, child sexual predators don't fit a particular mold. Representing all races, backgrounds, and religions, they're impossible to classify, says Wooden. "They represent a cross section of the American population landscape: rich and poor, PhDs to illiterates, professionals to laborers, the unemployed to corporate executives," he says. Wooden should know. He interviewed more than 1,000 convicted predators in his efforts to educate parents and children about the tricks of their trade.
According to information gathered by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, many molesters are married with children and working, so they manage to stay just below the radar, appearing acceptable to society at large. Often they're considered pillars of society. Typically they feel no remorse for their actions and are masters in the manipulation of children.
Predators attack in everyday settings. "It happens in dentist and doctor offices, at diving meets, and at daycare centers," states Leigh Baker, founder of the Trauma Treatment Center of Colorado and author of Protecting Your Child from Sexual Predators (St. Martin's Press, 2002). Most victims are convinced without force or a weapon to get in the predator's car or enter a home or other building.
Most abductions involve deception through well-known lures that still work. The most brutal acts against children began with free candy, the offer of a modeling contract, or a picture of a fluffy little kitten. Wooden has determined the following to be the most lethal:
Lost Pet: "It's important that we look our children in the eyes and say: 'There is no lost pet,'" emphasizes Wooden. And if there were, why would a grown-up be asking a child for help? It's simply not normal. Wooden recommends: "Tell them that if an adult asks you to look for a lost pet, you are in danger; get out of there!"
Assistance: Tell children that adults do not ask children for help; they ask other adults. If the adult approaches in the car, says Wooden, tell your kids to run in the opposite direction. If someone knocks on the door, tell your child not to open it under any circumstances. In a recent study, children opened the door time and time again to "a neighbor" needing help. Some even said "I'm not supposed to open the door" while doing so.
Authority: Make sure kids understand that they should never go anywhere with anyone without their parent's verbal permission -- regardless of whether the stranger wears a uniform or shows a badge or ID. "We tell kids that if someone wants to take you to an office, they need to call a parent right away," says Baker. "That child is a minor and has a right to have a responsible adult present." This applies to all situations, including school, the local video arcade, or the mall. Cells phones and walkie-talkies, she states, are a great safety investment.
"The only way to know if someone is a sex offender is if they have a record -- or if a mom has good instincts," says Wooden. If you have "a bad feeling" about your child's church youth leader or day camp counselor, don't ignore it. Keep your child away.
Likewise, if your child says he's uncomfortable being around someone, probe a little deeper. Intuition is not psychic nonsense. It's a survival instinct that has allowed humankind to avoid predators of the four-legged and two-legged variety for millennia. Tell your kids to trust it. Remind them that even if they turn out to be wrong, it's better to be embarrassed than a victim.
"No child has the wisdom or strength to take on a sexual predator," emphasizes Wooden. Here are some tips recommended by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for keeping kids out of danger.
Talk openly and often. "Hundreds of pedophiles have told me, 'Show me a kid who knows nothing about sex and I will show you my next victim,'" says Wooden. Make sure your children know what's appropriate for their age level. For young children, it's enough to know that their private parts are off-limits and if anyone touches them or tries to touch them in places that make them feel ashamed or uncomfortable, they can tell Mom or Dad. Play out scenarios, such as what to do if a stranger pulls up in a car, to reinforce lessons.
Create a family phone book. Designate a page for each child that includes home and cell phone numbers of friends' families. In the event your child is missing, you'll have an immediate network of people to call, not only to check to see whether your child is there, but also to start spreading the word in case the worst has happened.
Educate your child about the law. Kids should know that no one has the right to touch their private parts or to ask them to touch theirs, because it's against the law, says Wooden. Threatening a child is also illegal. Kids need to be told that adults who do this will be punished.
Look for a mother with kids. Instead of telling children to beware of all strangers, parents should be helping kids to understand that some strangers can be helpful. If a child is lost, being threatened, or in need of help, advise him to go to the nearest mother with children. Statistically, this person will be the most likely to help, not hurt your child. A store clerk behind a counter is also a good choice. They're in a public place and can summon the police if necessary.
Check out everyone. Parents need to know and demand background checks from everyone who comes in contact with their child, say the experts, including the husband and older son of your daycare provider. A legitimate provider should allow a parent complete access to her child at the daycare, including unannounced visits. Ask your local police department for online listings of child predators in your area.
Be careful about sleepovers. "A lot of abuse occurs at sleepovers, and I don't advocate them until the child is at least 10 because you just can't control these situations," says Baker. Be sure to meet both parents of all your children's friends. You won't be able to tell whether they're predators, but they will be less likely to prey on your child if they know you and your child have a close relationship.
Be vigilant. Baker advises parents not to permit children in their primary years to walk to school or a friend's house or play out front unattended. "They just are not going to be able to protect themselves," she says.
While most people are good, parents can't take a chance when it comes to a child's safety. Sullivan encourages those in positions of authority to set standards. If you're hiring for a position involving children, run a credit check in addition to the criminal background check.
"Don't be afraid to make sure a situation is okay rather than watch a child be abducted," says Wooden. Although children should be taught to yell out: "This is not my mommy, this is not my daddy," or "I don't know this person," not every child will. If you see a car hanging around the street, park, or school yard, call the police, says Wooden. Half of all nonforcible enticements occur outdoors in such places.
Wooden says that when talking to children he equates the evil in the world to the weather. "We tell children that for the most part the weather is safe but there are times when it's dangerous." People, he tells children, are like the weather. "Most are safe and caring, but we do have some human tornadoes and some are like sneaky thunderstorms that you don't even see coming."
Bottom line: The better informed your children are, the more likely they'll be able to play out their childhoods with innocence and joyfulness intact, under the sunniest of skies.
One in five children has received unwanted sexual solicitations from someone online. Such people are pros at finding out where your child lives without asking directly. John Sullivan Jr., PhD, an international expert and educator on child exploitation issues, says some simple steps can help keep your child safe online.
For more information: www.missingkids.com www.netsmartz.org www.ChildLures.org
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, September 2004.