How to Keep Your Child Safe

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Elizabeth Smart's cousins Amanda and Sierra react to news of Elizabeth's safe return

It's every parent's worst nightmare: A child is snatched from the playground in broad daylight never to be seen or heard from again. And it feels like it's happening all the time. But while it may seem like we are in the midst of a kidnapping epidemic, the truth is much less scary. According to data from the U.S. Justice Department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), kidnappings are on the decline.

Each year, between 200 and 300 kids are taken in "stereotypical" kidnappings (i.e. grabbed from their homes or playgrounds and then murdered or held for ransom), and 50 to 150 are murdered. Officials expect this year's total number to dip to near 100, hopefully dragging down the murder rate accordingly. And despite what you might reasonably think after hearing the terrible stories of Elizabeth Smart (who was returned safely home more than nine months after her abduction) and Samantha Runnion, the specter of kidnapping by strangers should not be parents' primary concern; parents themselves perpetrate more than 98 percent of all kidnappings, according to the DOJ. While about 700,000 missing children reports were filed in 2001, only a tiny percentage of those cases were non-family abductions. And here's one piece of positive news: 94 percent of kidnapped children are returned to their parents.

But even as the number of kidnappings declines, and the statistical probability of kidnapping grows smaller, parents continue to be understandably anxious. How can I protect my child? How can I make sure that my child is alert without scaring him too much?

When a stranger approaches

Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC, understands and applauds the impulse to educate our children, and urges parents to be alert without giving in to fear. He admits it's a tough line to walk. "We need to be prepared, to think about every eventuality, but we don't want to dwell on the worst that could happen," he says. "We don't want to terrify our kids or leave ourselves paralyzed with fear." Here, Allen offers some suggestions for parents.

  • Know where your kids are, especially young children.
  • Don't let them go out alone; there is safety in numbers.
  • Know who they're with.
  • Speak openly with them about their safety.
  • Practice what you talk about; go over scenarios and ask your kids what they would do.

    We need to empower our children, says Allen. "We need to rethink what we've told our kids over the years." "Don't take candy from strangers" is good advice. But in the vast majority of non-family abductions, perpetrators don't fit kids' idea of a "stranger" — they're not necessarily scary or creepy.

    The NCMEC has a "No, Go, Tell" plan for kids, which goes like this:

  • Kids have the right to say no. If a grown-up comes to a child asking for help looking for a puppy or for directions, the child should get a trusted adult to help instead.
  • Kids don't have to be polite. We put a huge premium on making sure our kids are polite to a fault, especially to adults, and that translates into: "do what the man says."
  • Communicate. If a child feels frightened, they should be encouraged to talk with a trusted person: mom, dad, counselor or teacher. The message for parents? Listen to your kids.

    Here are a few facts about non-family abductors: They tend to be male, and, despite the "dirty old man" tag, most are younger than 35 and of average or above average intelligence. In an overwhelming number of cases, their motives are sexual. Most are not true strangers to the children they take; they target one child and seek their confidence, often by developing a casual relationship with them.

    All in the family

    Beyond the terrifying sketch-artist renderings of anonymous kidnappers, there is the grim reality of family abductors, who make up the vast majority of kidnapping offenders.

    If you're dealing with a messy custody battle, or you fear a member of your family may be planning to abduct your child, Allen emphasizes that there are things you can do:

  • Keep the lines of communication open and establish an atmosphere in your home that encourages kids to talk to you about what's going on in their lives.
  • Teach your children your telephone number and area code, teach them how to contact you or close friends.
  • Tell them you love them and that you always want to see them, no matter what anybody else tells them.
  • Most family-member abductions happen only after the offender has talked about taking a child, so it's important, says Allen, to pay attention to what you consider threats.
  • If you identify a family member who talks about taking a child, collect and keep pertinent information (social security numbers, credit cards, etc.) about them on hand.
  • Address the legal issues: have a valid custody order, don't just assume anything.

    And finally, one last piece of advice for all parents, courtesy of the NCMEC: Take lots of pictures of your kids. Photos work when it comes to finding children, says Allen, and it's very important for families to have recent, full-face photos of their children, as well as accurate information about their hair color, weight, height and any distinguishing physical characteristics. Parents may also want to keep dental and medical records on hand in a safe place. This can speed up the process, and this is a situation where every hour counts. Seventy-four percent of abducted children who are murdered are killed within the first three hours of their kidnapping.