Having to discuss child abduction and molestation with a child can be difficult and uncomfortable, but warning your children about these dangers is important if you want to help keep them safe. These horrific crimes can be committed in the blink of an eye and will effect the lives of both parents and child forever. The locations these offenders troll are usually out in the open and in very public places.
As a retired law enforcement professional and a concerned parent, I want to do everything I can to prevent these crimes from happening to any child. With a background in law enforcement, I was privy to a host of child abduction and molestation cases from all over the United States.
This article about preventing child abduction and/or molestation is for parents and guardians and gives advice to help prevent child abduction and molestation. The information may illustrate how these despicable crimes can be committed and focuses on how we all need to remain vigilant for the safety and welfare of all children. Parents, guardians and anyone who is truly interested in the safety and welfare of all children must be aware of the hidden dangers and protect those who may not see the danger, or who may not be, capable of protecting themselves. Included are tactics that parents can practice with their children. I include practical techniques that a child as young as the age of seven can use to cause enough harm to escape from their abductor.
If you truly want to help prevent child abduction and molestation, please practice the “what if” scenarios with your child and share this information with other parents.
I have seen many different types of child abduction cases, including parental abduction and stranger abduction. This article focuses on stranger abduction.
Organized vs. Disorganized offenders:
An Organized offender is a person (male and/or female) who has carefully given significant thought to how a particular crime can occur. These offenders have selected their victim, scouted the location(s) where they will approach their victim, and will bring everything they may need to commit the crime.
A Disorganized offender (male and/or female) has not planned every aspect of the crime. These offenders typically have not thought through the crime, and more than likely act spontaneously when they see the opportunity.
A Compliant male or female, or even another child, often works in conjunction with the offender to commit either a sex crime or abduction. The female or child may initiate contact or help to support the main offender in the commission of their crime.
Approaching the victim:
The suspect may approach the victim by using a “confidence” style approach, or a “blitz” method. For the confidence approach, the suspect may approach using some type of charm as a guise all designed to get close to the victim without alarming the victim. The charm could be some type of conversation designed to be of interest to the child. A number of ruses have been used from puppies, ice cream, candy, gifts, photos, etc. Other cases have the adult telling a convincing lie about the child’s family in order to make the child comfortable.
The blitz method blinds the victim to the suspect and when the suspect is inside the child’s comfort zone, the suspect launches their physical attack.
Past cases of child abduction have occurred with children snatched off bicycles, forcefully removed out of grocery carts, attacked inside public restrooms, taken while playing in a public place (Shopping mall or Fairgrounds), walking to the neighborhood store or while on their way to and from school.
In May of 2019, two different attempted abduction cases out of Los Angeles, CA saw four- year- old children as the victims. In one case, a child was picked up by an adult female inside a McDonald’s fast food restaurant. The child was rescued and the suspect was arrested. In another case, the four-year-old child was walking with his family when an unrelated female grabbed the little boy and began walking away. Once the father of the little boy intervened, the female suspect continued to follow the boy and his father before finally leaving the area.
A child molestation can occur as quickly as just a few seconds. All a suspect will need is a few uninterrupted moments with your child (of nearly any age) where they can touch, have them touch or expose themselves to the child. There are cases where young children were approached inside a store. This may occur when a parent is distracted by looking at an item, or because the parent has allowed the child to wander into another aisle or department.
In the most egregious of child molestation cases, the suspect can have groomed the child over a long period of time. These offenders may be people that are somehow involved in the child’s life as a relative, family friend, or in a professional position of authority.
Offenders span all ethnic and socio-economic lines and represent nearly every occupation.
Grooming the child:
In some cases, the offender will not initially look or act like the monster they truly are. Instead, they may appear to the child and/or the parents to be nice. Their intent is to be as non-threatening as possible, all with the goal of eventually committing their heinous act(s) against the child. They may spend considerable time with the child acting as a friend, mentor, coach, etc. all designed to lower suspicions and gain everyone’s trust.
Intimidating the child:
Often time the offender will say things or take certain actions to intimidate the child. Using a deadly weapon (gun or knife) to threaten to hurt the child or the child’s family members is a common way to intimidate the child into cooperating.
Common Parental Mistakes:
There are common mistakes a parent or guardian can make that may provide an opportunity for the person or persons seeking to molest or abduct a child. Please do what you can to avoid making these mistakes. The consequences of making these mistakes are horrendous!
Being distracted: This is when the parent/guardian is focused on anything other than the child’s safety. In contemporary times, the incessant use of a smart phone or other electronic media can cause people to take more interest in viewing what is on the screen than paying attention to their child.
Leaving the child unattended: I have seen very small children of the age between 2 and 4 years old left unattended in a restaurant. Both parents (who did not consider leaving one at a time) went into a blind spot inside a restaurant get food for themselves and their children, leaving their children unattended for at least three minutes.
Anther example is when one of more children are left unattended inside a vehicle while the parent/guardian enters a house or business, sometimes leaving their vehicle running with the keys in the ignition. The justification given by the adult was they only intended to be gone for a moment. If an offender is watching, how long will it take for them to step in and commit their crime?
Allowing your child too much freedom: These are the situations where a child is allowed to go outside their house unattended and unsupervised at a very young age. One only has to watch children in just about any neighborhood walk to and from school. You might be surprised how young some of these children actually are. Other cases, unaccompanied and unsupervised children visit nearby parks or playgrounds. Parents have retorted that those crimes occur elsewhere and would never happen to them.
Providing your child with a cell phone with easy internet access:
If you really need to provide a cell phone for your school age child, ensure that it is the type that does not have internet access. There are too many predators that will troll the internet and lure a child away with promises a parent cannot even begin to imagine. Those promises could lead to sexual molestation, exploitation, human trafficking and homicide.
If you allow your child to have access to the Internet at home, ensure that you are savvy enough to comfortably navigate and investigate your child’s internet browsing history.
Always supervise your child as they use the internet. Allowing the computer to be used in private locations within the home only fosters the potential for bad things to happen.
Allowing your child to use Public Restrooms unaccompanied:
If you are going to allow your children to use a public restroom, ensure the restroom is free of any persons loitering in or around that location. Too many times, public restrooms have been the location of choice for sex crimes.
Teach and direct your child which restroom to use when you are out in public with them. Most locations may have a “Family” restroom. View the room to ensure that no one else is inside prior to your child using the room. Stand just outside the door and wait for your child to finish their business.
Allowing others access to your children: Some parents allow just about anyone to babysit their children and allow their children to go places with these relative strangers.
In the case of a very young child, strangers cannot help themselves from wanting to touch, hold their hand or pet your cute child. By allowing these people (either strangers to you or the child) to touch your child without the parent telling the child that person is allowed to touch them, reinforces in the child’s mind that any stranger can touch them without permission at any time. It’s okay to shield your child from the touch or conversation of a stranger. I would much rather be seen as slightly rude than to potentially reinforce to my child it is okay to converse with or be touched by a stranger.
Writing your child’s name on their belongings:
Many parents write their children’s names on their children’s clothing so they can identify their child’s belongings, however this also provides people with bad intentions to know the child’s name and use that name during the process of gaining the child’s trust. We recommend you use other identifying features such as the last four numbers of the adult’s phone number.
Placing photographs of your child on social media:
Lots of parents place their children or grandchildren’s photographs on a host of social media sites. If you choose to do this, ensure your privacy settings will not allow random strangers to view those photographs and other personal details about your child. Be cautious placing their names, identifying features of the child’s residence, school etc. that would allow anyone who might view those photos to know much more information than you want them to know.
Failure of you to be on time: If a parent/guardian has a dedicated time to pick up a child from school or an activity, be on time, if not early. If the parent/guardian arrives late, the child may be waiting “unattended” for their ride to arrive. Always arrive early to any event that may end early, just in case. Being early allows you to be present and cautiously waiting for your child for their safety. Lastly, rather than have your child negotiate through the parking lot, get out of your vehicle and meet your child on foot.
If the child is participating in an activity, stay there and watch. Not only do you express interest and support in what the child is doing, but it also helps to watch to ensure no suspicious activity occurs. Resist the urge to zone out by reading a book or other activity. You need to watch what your child is doing!
Relying on the use of self-defense gadgets: There are items on the market that tell us that by using their device, it will save your child if they encounter a bad situation. These “gadgets” can be noise makers, devices that are used to strike the offender and a host of other items, all designed to thwart an attack. If a child depends on these types of gadgets, these gimmicks can provide a false sense of security for the child and the parent. Relying on these types of devices may place either the child or the parent in a situation perhaps the child may never have been in without the gadget.
Keeping updated photos of your child: Ensure that you have a current photograph of your child taken each year. These photographs should accurately represent how your child looks. Take photos of their face and keep an accurate depiction of their height and weight.
These photos can be provided to law enforcement and the media if you have to report your child missing. Remember, this photograph may go out to the public to assist them in easily identifying of your child.
What we should teach our children: Children should be taught the the following principles which will help keep them safe. If at anytime a child feels unsafe or unsure, the child should quickly get to a safe place and tell an adult they know and trust. All safety principles taught by parents must become second nature for the child.
- Don’t talk to strangers:
We tell our young children not to talk to strangers, but then we as adults violate those same safety principle. When our children see this, they may think if the parent does it – they may be confused.
Just because a stranger wants to talk to the child does not mean the child needs to reciprocate in conversing with the stranger. Teach your child about responsible adults and the principles discussed below.
• Who are responsible adults:
These would be people a child can go to and request help. The child should never go away with the responsible adult, but wait for uniformed police in a marked police vehicle and the parent to arrive. Once the parent arrives, the parent and the child may then leave the area together. One of the hardest parts is to identify what is a “responsible adult.” People such as known school officials of your child (school teachers, counselors, etc.), Medical professionals, law enforcement or fire fighter officials and trusted relatives and neighbors are all examples of responsible adults a child could go to (but not away with) in case of an emergency.
- Teach your child to identify the responsible adult and use them in case of an emergency.
The responsible adult’s job has three roles: 1: to protect the child keeping them safe from physical harm from an offender; 2: notify law enforcement of the circumstances of a crime and 3: contact the parents to have them respond to the location to pick up their child. The responsible adult is not to take the child anywhere or to physically and unnecessarily touch the child in the course of keeping them safe.
- Common Ruses used by offenders:
Educate children about the common ruses and tricks offenders will use. By educating your child, it may prevent him/her from ever getting too close to a potential offender.
Ruses like offering money, candy or gifts if the child can come closer to them. Another ruse is helping the stranger look for a lost pet, play with a puppy or telling the child they are there at the parent’s request to pick them up because a family member has been hurt.
- What to do when approached: There is nothing that mandates your child must converse with an adult stranger (man or woman), and there should be no legitimate reason for an adult man/woman to ever seek guidance or help from a child.
Make certain your children know should they be approached by a stranger, they don’t need to stay and talk with them. In fact, the longer the child remains at that location or converses with the stranger the more their safety may be at risk. Teach children and demonstrate what is a safe distance to stand from an adult they don’t know (at least ten feet). Keeping that distance may just be the one opportunity to provide an avenue of escape should one be needed.
Also, teach the child that strangers may approach them anywhere – inside or around their home. These places could be from the relative safety of their front or back yard, school, public park/playground, shopping mall, etc. Reinforce that strangers are men and women the child does not know, and that even though the stranger may have a kind face, they are still strangers. Teach them to follow your lead on how to react so they will stay safe.
• Play the What If game with your child:
First discuss the potential scenarios you want to protect your child from and then play the “what if” game with you as the potential stranger. Do not overwhelm your child with countless scenarios per day. Consider playing this game on a periodic basis. Remember, the goal of this exercise is not to traumatize the child, but to help them see how to react when you may not be present.
• A few “What if” Scenarios:
- The offender approaches the child and offers free (whatever) if the child comes near: This ruse is designed to lure the child to come closer to the offender. It does not matter what item is offered by the offender the child should never go towards the offender.
- The offender threatens the child with force: No matter what the stranger threatens, the child should never cooperate or go away with the stranger.
- The offender shows the child a weapon: No matter what type of weapon the offender has, the child is better off immediately escaping from the offender than going with the offender.
- The offender grabs the child: Even if the child has taken self-defense lessons, a small child is really no match for an adult in an exchange of physical force. Therefore, if an offender ever grabs a child, the child should use immediate physical resistance such as biting into the face or gouging into the eyes of the offender. If the offender has grabbed onto the child, the child should bite the offender hard enough to cause the offender to release them.
Show your child how to bite into the thumb and thumb knuckle area of the hand, approximately two inches down from the thumb nail of the knuckle.
• There may be safety in numbers:
Most offenders would prefer to approach a child who is alone than a child who is with several other children. Teach your child that there may be safety in numbers and it might be better to stay among a group of his/her peers than to venture off alone.
Also, seek permission from the parents of your child’s peer group, and with their parents present, educate the children on what to do if approached and what they can do ito help another child if help should help be required.
• Teach the child how to use 9-1-1:
Teach your child how to use a telephone/mobile phone to call for immediate police response. They don’t need to actually dial 9-1-1 when practicing, but you can walk them through the exact steps. The child will need to tell the 9-1-1 operator their location. Make sure your child can use landmarks to help provide a clue to their location.
• No Short cuts:
Once children are of a sufficient age to be out on their own in their own neighborhood, they should travel only on main roads and routes previously identified by the parent. Taking a shortcut though areas that provide concealment for potential offenders is not wise and also make it difficult for parents to come looking for the child.
• What a child could yell to signal they need help:
The easiest two words a child can use to alert others to an stranger or offender they fear is “Stranger-Help”. There are a number of other words that can be used, but you want people within ear shot to know this child is being physically grabbed by someone who is not their parent and you want them to intervene to stop the attack and to call 9-1-1 immediately and get help.
• Teach to get away from the offender:
It is very important that the child take every opportunity to escape from their captor at every conceivable opportunity. There are numerous cases where the offender is bold enough to take the abducted child into a public business (fast food restaurant, convenience store or department store). Teach your child to attract attention by knocking things off shelves or to go to an open cash register and grab onto the cashier and to yell “call the police, stranger.” The cashier will take immediate action to help this child before they do anything else.
• How your child’s friends can help fight back:
If children are together when an offender approaches a child using a confidence approach, other children should remind the child of the safety rules about strangers. All the children should leave the place together and go to a safe place to report the incident. If a vehicle is involved, as long as the child is not in danger he/she could get the license plate and/or description of the vehicle.
If the offender were to grab a child, others children can aid their friend by biting. Biting leaves DNA and dental impressions that the offender will find difficult to explain, and it is strong evidence that will lead to a conviction once the offender is apprehended.
• How and where to hide:
Should a child ever need to hide from an offender, use teachable moments while playing the “What If” game helping the child to discover safe places to hide. Hiding under parked cars or knocking over garbage cans and getting inside or climbing into a dumpster anything to hide long enough for the offender to leave the area. Once the child believes the offender has left the area, the child should run to the closest place of safety and ask for assistance from a responsible adult.
• What to do if taken:
In the worst-case scenario, if a child is abducted, the child must be taught the offender will lie and use trickery to keep the child compliant. The offender may tell the child that if they resist, the child or one or more members of the child’s family will be hurt. Teach your children that ninety-nine percent of the time this is a lie and that parents and siblings will be protected. The child must look for every opportunity to escape and summon help!
Leave clues behind in the form of saliva. If a vehicle is used, teach the child to spit and rub the spit it different areas of the car that may not be easily visible to the offender. Places such as the spaces between the seats and the carpeted areas of the vehicle are places the offender may not easily see.
When the police conduct a search of the vehicle, it would be difficult for the offender to explain why the child’s DNA is inside their car, van or truck.
• Neighborhood Child safety:
If you live in an area where you have frequent contact with your neighbors AND you have inquired about the neighbor’s backgrounds and determined that they can be trusted their household may be a safe place for your child to run to for help.
The inquiry should consist of the following issues:
- Obtaining the names of all adults over the age of 18 who may either reside or frequent there;
- Checking the sex offender registry to see if any of their names (or faces) are associated with that residence;
- Look on-line for the sex offenders in your neighborhood that provides photographs and pertinent information such as their photograph and location within your area;
- Certain mobile telephone app’s have information about sex offenders in your neighborhood.
How non family adults can help:
• Go to respective news websites to view the Amber Alert, and take a screen shot of the photograph of the missing child. This gives the public a photograph to compare to children they see in the public (or private) arena. Keep in mind that just because there was not an Amber alert issued for the area, perhaps a child may have been taken from another location outside the Amber alert area.
• Be on the lookout for unusual activity involving a child and a potential offender. Although most offenders are adults, keep in mind that there have been cases where a child has been lured away by older children.
• If a child in public appears to be under duress, attempting to escape from or resist the adult they are with, keep and eye on the situation and get help if you thinks its necessary. This can seem difficult because the child may just be unhappy with a parent, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
• Key in on facial features of the child as the offender may have dressed the child in different clothing other than what the child was wearing when he/she was abducted.
• Be aware that the offender(s) may be a lone male, lone female, or a couple working together.
• Approaching a potential offender who is believed to be the person responsible for a child’s abduction is very dangerous. If you ever “reasonably believe” the child and the person is in fact the one listed in the Amber Alert or missing person report, use your smart phone to photograph the child and their potential suspect. Immediately call 9-1-1 and report your concern! Provide your location and ask they expedite their response to your location. If the suspect is about to leave the area with the child, safely obtain a photograph of their vehicle to include the license plate. Note the direction of travel and once again call 9-1-1 to update the information.
• If you are 100% certain the child in question is the same child in the Amber alert, and only if you are physically and legally prepared to use force to rescue the child, use the force necessary to keep the child and yourself safe. Otherwise, you may be placing your life and the life of the child at risk.
Law Enforcement and the Media:
Encourage your local news media stations to show photographs of any child who may be listed in an Amber alert. Remember, the facial recognition of the child may help with the speedy identification and recovery of any missing child.
As soon as the law enforcement agency has confirmed a child has been abducted, the agency will obtain and release to the media all the necessary information on the identity of the child, suspect(s) and suspect vehicle.
The most current photograph of the child should be expeditiously provided to all local media stations. Instead of just the brief text information about the child, each media outlet broadcasting the Amber alert should have a good photo on their respective news websites.
Editors Note: If you are considering professional Child Safety training for you and your child or children, we highly recommend you contact Joseph Walker at Leading Edge Threat Mitigation to schedule a customized class for both parents and children. The training can be in a small group with the parents and the child present, or you can arrange for private lessons.