Whenever the evening news brings the story of a kidnapped child or teen, the terrifying prospect of abduction fills the minds of parents everywhere. But it's important to remember that most kids pass through childhood safely.
One of the challenges of being a parent is teaching your kids to be cautious without filling them with fear or anxiety. Although some dangers do exist, you lessen the chances that your child will be abducted.
The Reality of Child Abductions
The circumstances surrounding child abduction are often quite different from the way they're shown in TV shows and movies.
Here are some of the realities of child abduction:
- Most kids who are reported missing have run away or there has been a misunderstanding with their parents about where they were supposed to be.
- Of the kids and teens who are truly abducted, most are taken by a family member or an acquaintance; 25% of kids are taken by strangers.
- Almost all kids kidnapped by strangers are taken by men, and about two thirds of stranger abductions involve female children.
- Most abducted kids are in their teens.
- Kids are rarely abducted from school grounds.
Strategies for Preventing Abductions
About 2,100 missing-children reports are filed each day in the U.S. Many cases might be solved more easily if parents can provide a few key pieces of information about their kids, like: height, weight, eye color, and a clear recent photo. And make sure your kids have the safety information that could help prevent an abduction.
These strategies may help:
- Make sure custody documents are in order.
- Have ID-like photos taken of your kids every 6 months and have them fingerprinted. Many local police departments sponsor fingerprinting programs.
- Keep your kids' medical and dental records up to date.
- Make online safety a priority. The Internet is a great tool, but it's also a place for predators to stalk kids. Be aware of your kids' Internet activities and chat room "friends," and remind them never to give out personal information. Avoid posting identifying information or photos of your kids online.
- Set boundaries about the places your kids go. Supervise them in places like malls, movie theaters, parks, public bathrooms, or while fundraising door to door.
- Never leave kids alone in a car or stroller, even for a minute.
- Choose caregivers — babysitters, childcare providers, and nannies — carefully and check their references. If you've arranged for someone to pick up your kids from school or day care, discuss the arrangements beforehand with your kids and with the school or childcare center.
- Avoid dressing your kids in clothing with their names on it — children tend to trust adults who know their names.
Talking to Kids About Strangers
Talk to your kids often about safety. Give them the basics on how to avoid and escape potentially dangerous situations. Teach them to:
- Never accept candy or gifts from a stranger.
- Never go anywhere with a stranger, even if it sounds like fun. Predators can lure kids with questions like "Can you help me find my lost puppy?" or "Do you want to see some cute kittens in my car?" Remind your kids that adults they don't know should never ask them to help or to do things for them.
- Run away and scream if someone follows them or tries to force them into a car.
- Say no to anyone who tries to make them do something you've said is wrong or touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Always tell you or another trusted adult if a stranger asks personal questions, exposes himself or herself, or otherwise makes them feel uneasy. Reassure kids that it's OK to tell you even if the person made them promise not to or threatened them in some way.
- Always ask permission from a parent to leave the house, yard, or play area or to go into someone's home.
Keep these other tips in mind, too:
- Make sure younger kids know their names, address, phone number including area code, and who to call in case of an emergency. Review how to use 911 or a local emergency number. Discuss what to do if they get lost in a public place or store — most places have emergency procedures for handling lost kids. Remind them that they should never go to the parking lot to look for you. Instruct kids to ask a cashier for help or stand near the registers or front of the building away from the doors.
- Point out the homes of friends around the neighborhood where your kids can go in case of trouble.
- Be sure your kids know whose cars they may ride in and whose they may not. Teach them to move away from any car that pulls up beside them and is driven by a stranger, even if that person looks lost or confused. Develop code words for caregivers other than mom or dad, and remind your kids never to tell anyone the code word. Teach them not to ride with anyone they don't know or with anyone who doesn't know the code word.
- If your kids are old enough to stay home alone, make sure they keep the door locked and never tell anyone who knocks or calls they are home alone.
If Your Child Is Abducted
Because the first few hours are the most critical in missing-child cases, it's important to provide officials with information about your child immediately.
If your child has been abducted, contact local law enforcement right away. They'll ask you for a recent picture of your child and will probably ask you many questions about the time and location you last saw your child and what your child was wearing.
You may also request that your child be entered into National Crime and Information Center (NCIC). Other clearinghouses such as the Child Protection Education of America ( USA-CHILD) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children ( 843-5678) can offer information and support during your search.
After notifying the authorities, try to stay calm. You'll be able to remember details about your child's disappearance more easily if you remain rational and logical.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013