What Can Parents Do?
“I HAD just seen this television documentary on abducted children,” said the retired Florida man, “when I began to wonder if children really knew what to do if a stranger tried to lure them away. So I posed this question to some eight-year-old children I knew: What would you do if a stranger was nice to you, offered you some candy, and then after a while asked you to go along with him—saying that he wanted to show you something?” He continued: “Do you know what they said? Each one answered: ‘I don’t know.’”
“But these were ‘country kids,’” he said, “and since I had to travel that weekend to a nearby city and would be meeting with quite a number of families, I decided to check out what the children who were more ‘street wise’ would say.” Their answers astounded him. All the children six years old and under responded to his question, “Would you go with him?” with a firm “Yes, Sir!” Those who were seven or older generally said no. But the man noted: “They really had no clear idea of why not or what they should do.”
Children are not the only ones who are uninformed. Many parents also do not know what to do—either to protect their child or to find their child when he is missing.
Aside from the occasionally lost child, children disappear for two basic reasons: Either they leave voluntarily, as in the case of runaways, or they are abducted by someone. Since children lack mature judgment and experience, it is up to the parents to take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their child.
The Dangers Are Real
Parents must realize that the dangers are real. There are people out there who want your child, but they do not have the child’s best interests in mind. “Their motivation is usually for sexual gratification,” says Alice Byrne, a New York-based private detective who has tracked down missing children as far away as Kenya. “It is rarely to love and nurture the child.”
Concurring is Sergeant Lloyd Martin of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit. “I don’t know of a soul who takes runaways in off the street without getting something in return,” he says, “and it’s usually sex.” They often get what they want from the child, without protestations, because they give the child what he feels he lacks—love, attention, affection, money and material goods. Or they may convince the child that his parents no longer want him, or abuse the child so badly that he eventually feels worthless and accepts his new role in life.*
While the press often focuses attention on these “sick” and perverted strangers who prey on young children, parents also need to exercise caution regarding people the child already knows. “We know that the threat to the children is not from the stranger,” says Charles Sutherland of Search. “It’s from the very people that the child has come to know and trust—overwhelmingly so.” Danger to the child could come from a relative, friend or neighbor—or even a teacher or other person in a position of authority. Advises Annette, whose son Taj has been missing since 1981: “Know who your child’s friends are. A child molester or a kidnapper is often someone you know, someone who is in a socially approved situation with your child.”
The warning you give your child in regard to being wary of strangers may not be adequate for another reason: Your idea of a stranger and your child’s idea may be different. Your child may have friends you do not know and whom you may consider strangers. “A person who says hello to your child on his way to school, or who gives him some candy, can quickly become his friend and buddy,” says detective Alice Byrne. “Especially in the big cities do we find this potential danger.” She advises: “Take an interest in your children’s friends—especially if that friend is an adult.”
Home Environment and Instruction
Obviously, a crucial factor in protecting a child is the quality of life at home. “The most consistently reported factor underlying runaway behavior is poor parent-child relationships,” says a study in the publication Family Relations. A loving and happy home atmosphere, where good communication between family members exists and where the child is made to feel secure, will most likely preclude a child’s running away—or staying away—when emotional situations occur. Caring parents will also weigh their decisions in the light of what is in the best interests of their children.
While it is necessary to instruct a child about people who might abduct or harm him, the approach or manner in which the instruction is given is also important. A parent certainly does not want the child to become neurotic and paranoid—in dread of everyone he meets or sees. On the other hand, a parent will not let fear of upsetting the child or the unlikelihood of an incident occurring prevent the giving of needed instruction.
The fact is that incidents of child abduction do occur, in small towns as well as in big cities. No one can predict where or when. So a wise parent will take reasonable precautions and give needed instruction to prevent the child from being abducted. “Nobody’s saying your kid is going to be kidnapped,” says police sergeant Richard Ruffino, an expert in the field of missing persons. “You look at the things you do and the knowledge you give your child as preventive action plans. Its like an insurance policy. Do you buy insurance because you’re going to have an accident, or do you buy insurance because you may have an accident?”
Among the precautions that authorities say parents should take are these: When in public, always keep your young child in sight. Never leave very young children unattended. Know whose care you entrust your child to. Do not send a young child out alone at night to run an errand or purchase some item you need. Do not leave young children in game areas in stores or shopping centers while you go shopping, or alone in an automobile—especially one that has the key in the ignition or the engine left running—while you attend to some business.
Some authorities advocate use of a family code word—a special, preselected word that is known only to family members. Persons intent on abducting a child will often tell the child that they were sent by the child’s parents, or have come for the child because the mother is sick. The child could then ask for the family code word, and if it is not given, refuse to go along. At any rate, a child should know that, although he should be polite and respectful to adults, he has a perfect right to say, “No, thank you” and not to do anything that makes him frightened or uncomfortable, or that is contrary to his parents’ instructions.
Much of the success of protecting a child hinges on open communication. A loving and communicative parent will be aware of the “signals” given by a child who is experiencing difficulties: abrupt changes in mood and disposition, increased isolation, secretiveness and diminished communication, disturbed sleep and loss of appetite. Remember, communication is a two-way street. Parents, listen to what your child tells you and weigh it carefully. “Taj mentioned once that he would run away,” says Annette, “but I didn’t take him seriously. I had never heard him mention it before, and I figured he was just saying that.”
When a Child Is Missing
What can parents do when a child is missing? First, try not to panic. Make a brief, reasonable search to establish that the child is really missing. Check your home, his school, his close friends, the neighbors. Then immediately report the situation to your local law-enforcement agency, giving them all the information you can. In some localities the police have special missing persons or runaway divisions, and these should be informed as well.
Spreading the word to all your child’s friends and relatives may also prove beneficial. Your child may get in touch with them, or they may already know something that may be helpful. Success in finding a missing child often depends on publicity—how many people know about it and are keeping an eye open for the child. In some countries there are special agencies with telephone hot lines for missing persons. Their aid can also be enlisted, and some may be well worth the small fee they charge for registration and inclusion in their circulars of missing persons. In the United States the case can now be included in the FBI-operated NCIC (National Crime Information Center) computer with nationwide availability.
Precise and up-to-date information will be the most helpful in locating a missing child and distinguishing him from any look-alikes. Often a search is hampered because of lack of a photograph, or positive identification cannot be made on a body because of insufficient data. The accompanying box gives common suggestions offered by authorities that will aid a search and make identification easier.
How parents treat a child that returns or is found is also important. A common reaction is to scold and punish the child severely. While some instruction and discipline may indeed be needed, parents do well to watch how it is administered. As reported in the Italian publication Oggi, “young people run away from home . . . because often no one in the family knows how to listen and understand.” When tensions and misunderstandings persist or even increase, studies show, such negative home conditions will only increase the chances that the child will continue to run away. Professional help may be needed here.
A Hard Ordeal for Parents
The tragedy of a missing child is a hard ordeal for any caring parent to face. Besides anguish of heart and mind, the parent often has to bear up under thoughtless and unkind remarks from others, such as: “He must be dead by now” or, “You have other children. Pull yourself together.” Many times there are threatening and crank telephone calls that annoy or send the parent off on a wild-goose chase. And since parents often abduct their own children, you may even be suspect yourself and subject to interrogation.
Perhaps worst of all is really not knowing. “Families whose children have been missing for long periods would surely prefer the finality of bad news to the anxiety of an unexplained disappearance,” states The Washington Post, “if that is the choice.” Says Annette: “A missing person is just such a horror because you don’t know anything about what has happened to him.”
However, there are many sympathetic people who do care and will help and rally to your support. Firm inner strength, too, is needed and is promised by God to those who trust in him. (Psalm 9:9, 10) For Annette, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is these factors—her trust in God and the loving support of the congregation—that help her endure her sad experience. “It has taught me to trust more in Jehovah,” she said, “and Jehovah has given me the strength to cope with it.” Adds detective Alice Byrne: “It was Annette’s strong faith that pulled her through.” Both are hopeful that Taj will soon no longer be a “missing child.”
For more information, please see the June 22, 1982, issue of Awake!
[Blurb on page 7]
There are people out there who want your child, but they do not have the child’s best interests in mind
[Box on page 8]
INSTRUCT YOUR YOUNG CHILDREN:
● Always to take the same—and safest—route to and from school each day
● To use the “buddy” system—always to be with a friend when they play, go to a store or movie—and not to go off alone
● Not to let strangers touch them; not to accept money or candy from strangers
● Never to go along with or accept rides from someone they do not know
● To scream for help if a stranger tries to take them by force
● To report any unusual or scary incidents to parents or teachers
● How to use the telephone if they need help (Do they know their own number, their full name and where they live?)
[Box on page 9]
While it may be unlikely that your child will be abducted, authorities suggest these precautionary measures:
● Take a clear, sharp, full-face photo of each child at least once a year.
● On the back of the photo note the following current information for each child:
Height and weight
Hair and eye colors
Clothing and shoe sizes
Any distinguishing body marks
Date picture was taken
● Know where each child’s medical and dental X rays and records can be located. Obtain these before they are destroyed or you move to a distant location.
● Keep an up-to-date record of any medicines a child needs and what the effects will be if not taken.
● Take fingerprints of your child for positive identification in case of foul play or hidden identity. Fingerprinting each member of the family at the same time can allay a child’s fear and such identification is useful to have. With a little practice, parents can do this themselves, using an ordinary black stamp pad.
[Box on page 10]
150,000 Children Kidnapped Yearly
One hundred and fifty thousand children are kidnapped each year (two thirds by estranged parents) in the United States, according to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on juvenile justice. The subcommittee is considering legislation to provide federal financial aid and other assistance in locating missing children. Although one privately financed group has located 800 children in less than three years, private organizations are being overwhelmed by the extent of the problem. Therefore the appeal for government assistance.