"Is my son safe playing in a neighbor's back yard? They seem like nice people, but can I really trust them?"
"Does my daughter know what she should do if a stranger approaches, asking for help or offering candy?"
The good news, experts say, is that recent high-profile kidnapping cases do not reflect a growing problem. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the number of serious abduction cases is consistent with last year's figures, but overall trends show an actual decline in such cases. In 2001, 725,000 children - nearly 2,000 per day - were reported missing. Most cases involved abduction by a parent, or a child running away. The vast majority of kids were recovered quickly. Three thousand to 5,000 children were involved in so-called "stranger danger" cases, taken by a non-family member. Of these, 200 to 300 were cases where the child was murdered or ransomed.
Still, statistics are seldom enough to calm fears. Read on for the FBI's take on the recent high-profile cases, and suggestions on how to keep kids safe.
Q&A with FBI on Missing Children
FamilyEducation.com asked April Brooks, supervisory special agent in the FBI's Crimes Against Children Unit, to answer parents' questions about the recent kidnapping cases. Brooks has been directly involved in all of the cases now making news.
There is no need to panic and frighten children, but you also need to let them know the dangers that are out there. It happens in San Diego, Houston, Salt Lake, and Portland, Oregon. It's not just big cities. It's every city. What we're experiencing is a publicized cluster of high profile abductions. Why? I have no idea. It is summer; more kids are out, and more predators are out. Kids' exposure goes up in the summer. They are more at risk. The greatest risk of abduction by a family member is at the end of the summer and at the end of Christmas vacation (times when a child is supposed to return home.)
Are there similarities in the abduction cases making news? For instance, are girls more at risk than boys?
No, there are as many little boys as there are little girls being taken. A couple of these high profile cases appear to involve people who weren't familiar to the child. Others involve people the child knew. We try to reiterate to people: you can no longer go down the "Stranger Danger" route in talking to kids. Most children are taken by people they know. Out of the many thousands of cases we see each year, only a few hundred are stranger abductions.
But it's easier to tell kids, "Don't talk to strangers." How do you tell kids that a relative might abduct them, and expect them to grow up trusting anyone?
This is a problem; we teach our children to be trusting of police officers and firemen when we know that those people can't always be trusted. It extends to friends and family - the tutor or the uncle. The most important thing is to lay ground rules: you don't go anywhere with anyone unless your parents know about it. The parent needs to know where the child is at all times.
Does abduction occur after a relationship with a child has been established?
Sure. A neighbor may have some relationship with a child. There's going to be some trust building (sometimes, prior to abduction) so the child goes willingly with that person. The basic rule to teach children is that if something about a situation doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. You have the right to tell somebody how you feel.
Should parents talk with kids about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate in relationships between adults and children?
That kind of safeguard is the predominant one you want to use. For example, we tell parents to teach their children that adults don't ask kids for help. If an adult asks you to help him find his lost dog that should tell you right there that there's a problem. Adults should only ask other adults for help.
Should parents make reference to the current cases in the news when talking to kids, or is that too scary?
First of all, some will hear about the cases from their friends, or on the news. Depending on the age of the child, I might sit down and say, "Look this is what happened to that little boy or girl. If someone tries to take you, do anything to get away - kick, bite, scream." Another thing to do is to have a secret code that only the parent and the child knows. So if someone says, "Your Mom told me to pick you up" the child can ask if he knows the code. I can tell you that has worked to prevent abduction in actual cases. The empowerment for kids comes with the knowledge of what to do in these situations. If they don't have it, they can't help themselves. For more child safety tips, visit the FBI's web site at www.fbi.gov or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's site at www.missingkids.com. Or call NCMEC's toll-free hotline at 800-843-5678.