Elizabeth Smart, 10 Years After: Would Fighting Back Have Helped?

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Jim Urquhart / AP

Elizabeth Smart talks to the media outside the Frank E. Moss Federal Courthouse in Salt Lake City on May 25, 2011. Her kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, was sentenced to life in prison

Updated. Clarification added.

Ten years ago today, Brian David Mitchell came into 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart's room in the middle of the night, held a knife to her neck and told her that if she didn't go with him quietly, he would kill her and her family. Terrified that Mitchell would be true to his word, she went with him to a campsite not far from her home in Salt Lake City, where she was held prisoner and raped daily for nine months.

We know how Smart's captivity ended. Two people who had seen a drawing of Mitchell on the TV show America's Most Wanted tipped off the authorities. But if she had resisted Mitchell that night, if she had fought back, would her story have been different? "The majority of those [kids] who fight back are able to get away — but I didn't know that," Smart tells TIME. "The only thing I was told by my school was, 'Don't get in a car with a stranger,' and that didn't really apply to what happens when someone breaks into your home and has a knife at your neck." Now a poised, tenacious young woman who has testified before Congress on the issue, Smart has started a foundation in her name dedicated to preventing crimes against children. She has concluded, "We're preparing children for the wrong thing."

According to the Department of Justice, nearly 800,000 children are reported missing each year. The vast majority are kids who are momentarily lost and then returned to their parents. But typically about 200,000 cases are victims of family abductions, for example, taken by a parent as part of a dispute; another 60,000 are taken by people the kids knew, often to be abused in a sexual manner. Of the second category, slightly more than 100 involve holding and transporting a child far from home, demanding ransom or even killing the child. In the years since Smart's kidnapping, the U.S. nationalized the Amber Alert system, which is designed to quickly inform the public of abductions, and adopted the Adam Walsh Act, which created a national sex-offender registry and organized sex offenders into three tiers. The law requires the most serious offenders to update their whereabouts every three months.

But even if those systems — which the Smart family advocates — had been in place in 2002, they may have done little to prevent the young woman's abduction. Amber Alerts are most effective when police can give the public specific details, such as a driver's license or a physical description of the abductor, but since Smart was stolen in the middle of the night without anyone seeing Mitchell's face, an alert would likely have been ineffective. Additionally, it's uncertain whether Mitchell would have been listed in the sex-offender registry had it existed then. He was convicted of a sexual offense as a teenager, but the record of that crime may not have followed him into adulthood.

Because even the most well-intentioned laws and the most protective parents have limits, Smart and other advocates are placing more focus on what kids can do themselves. But unlike the fear-mongering, "stranger danger" campaigns of the 1980s — which told kids not to talk to strangers but did little else to help them learn how to escape potentially harmful situations — the focus now is on teaching kids to fight back. "Twenty years ago we would have told kids to do what the [abductor] says and wait for someone to come help you," says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). "We now say fight, scream, kick, bite, use whatever tools you have to attract attention to yourself."

The shift has proven effective. Of 7,000 attempted abductions analyzed by NCMEC between 2005 and 2012, 81% escaped either by fighting back or by recognizing the situation and running away. Only 19% of the children who escaped did so because of the intervention of an adult.

To help children escape her fate, Smart works with an educational nonprofit called radKIDS, which was founded by former police officer Steve Daley. "I was tired of showing up [after the fact of an abduction]," Daley says. "I knew we needed a different way to protect kids." Daley's method is a five-day training program that teaches three key principles: no one has the right to hurt you; you don't have the right to hurt anyone else (unless someone is hurting you and you can stop them); and if someone does hurt you, it's not your fault. "What radKIDS does is take the fate of the child out of the parents' hands and give control to the child so they know when something is O.K. and when something is not O.K.," Smart says. "It gives them the skills and ability to take care of themselves."

The idea that a 5-year-old should take on an armed adult may sound absurd — but NCMEC has a rationale. "There are still some in law enforcement who teach children that if the offender has a weapon, they should comply in order to avoid being shot, stabbed, etc.," says Allen. "We understand, and that is not unreasonable." But, he adds, "the purpose of the offender is not to shoot the child. Otherwise, they would just do it. The purpose is to use the threat of force in order to get the child into the car and to whatever location the offender has in mind so that the offender can victimize the child in some way." So, Allen says, "the child is most often better off if he or she resists and does whatever is necessary to stay out of that car. Obviously, this is not going to work in every situation, and there is no 100% solution, but we believe that children are far better off if they fight back."

Beyond offering self-defense lessons and role-playing, radKIDS, which has trained some 250,000 children since 2001, works to change a child's mind-set. "Children need to have permission to act," Daley says. "They have instinct, but they often ignore it because their whole lives they are taught to obey adults." Fear causes children to freeze, he says. It's likely what made Smart quietly follow Mitchell out the door, rather than scream and kick, and why many other children walk off, seemingly without protest, with the person who will later kill them. "We want to empower the child with an attitude and skill set that says, How dare you touch me, vs. the traditional mind-set of, Help me, help me," Daley says. "It's about teaching them they have a choice — if they meet the bad guy, they have the ability to respond with power instead of fear."

It's a lesson Smart says might have helped her. "In the moment I was kidnapped I didn't think I had a choice — I thought either I go with this man, or I will be killed," she says. "Had I been trained with radKIDS, I would have known that I had more than just the choice of being killed in my bed or going with him. I could have made a plan in that moment. I could have realized that, No, this man is not all-powerful. I would have known I had a chance — that I had power. I may have been confident enough in my skills to fight back. I can't say for sure whether this training would have prevented me from being kidnapped or having everything that happened to me happen, but I know it would have made a difference."

While we'll never know what might have been, the silver lining of Smart's experience is that she lived to tell the tale to future generations. "The legacy of Elizabeth Smart is a very powerful and important one," says Allen. "Because of Elizabeth, millions of kids are smarter, savvier and have greater self-esteem and self-confidence. Kids today are more able to recognize situations and deal with them in a positive and effective way — and she deserves enormous credit for that."

Clarification: The original version of the story said nearly 800,000 children go missing each year — an average of 2,185 per day. The current version breaks down the types of missing reports into categories.