Saturday, July 27, 2002

Strangers


Childhood scenes from the summer of 2002 are filled with heartache.

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        A 6-year-old girl, kidnapped at breakfast Friday from the kitchen of a friend's home in suburban St. Louis, was found dead in the afternoon.

        A 7-year-old girl in Philadelphia chewed through duct tape bindings this week to escape abductors who took her from her grandmother's front yard.

        Before eluding employees of a Wal-Mart in Grant County, Ky., last week, a man exposed himself to a 6-year-old girl as she held her mother's hand.

        A 5-year-old girl in California's Orange County kicked and screamed as a man grabbed her just yards from her home on July 15. He had asked her to help him find a lost puppy. The next day, her lifeless body was found dumped by the side of a road.

        These horrifying scenes number among a parent's worst nightmares.

        They make you want to think of ways to prevent this.

        You can tell a child: Don't go with strangers. Don't accept candy from people you don't know. If a strange man or woman offers you a ride, a chance to pet a puppy or look for a stray kitten, run away.

        As a kid, I heard that message over and over. Now, as a grownup, I wonder, if a parent or grandparent, an aunt or uncle, anyone caring for children can offer more powerful words of warning without scaring children half to death or making them afraid to go outside.

Expert opinions

        For advice, I asked two experts: Eric Smoot, an officer in the Cincinnati Police Department's Youth Services Section, and Dr. Vicki Carr, director of the University of Cincinnati's Arlitt Child & Family Research & Education Center.

        They told me adults can help children stay safe. First, talk with them about the danger of strangers. And do it repeatedly.

        “Every time a child goes outside,” said Officer Smoot, “go over what to do if a stranger approaches.”

        Vigilance is a must. “The younger the child, the more they need to be watched,” Dr. Carr said.

        Talking with each other is vital. “Validate your kids' feelings,” Dr. Carr said. “Let them know it's OK, for example, to feel scared. Get them to talk about how they feel.”

Good advice

        The enemy in this war on childhood innocence is devious, cunning and evil.

        “These predators work off the element of surprise,” said Officer Smoot. They vary their pitch. Sometimes they offer cookies. Candy. A doll.

        Sometimes they say they need help. They're lost or a pet is missing.

        Officer Smoot speaks regularly with neighborhood groups about dangerous strangers. “Just call me at 352-2593. I'll be happy to come out and talk to anyone. Group size doesn't matter. Can be 2 or 102.”

        At these meetings, he warns children “no worthwhile adult stranger is going to want you to come closer, get in a car or walk away with them.”

        For this reason, he tells children there's only one correct response when strangers offer gifts or ask for help.

        “Say, "No!'

        “Then, run straight home to tell your parents.

        “If they're not home, make sure they've established safe houses around the neighborhood where you can go and let people know what went on.”

        The enemy tries to torpedo that advice. “Predators will tell children: "Don't tell anyone what happened,' ” said Dr. Carr.

        “They will even go so far as to tell the child: "If you tell anyone, I will kill your mother.' ”

        Such threats are thwarted by strong lines of communication.

        Children feel safe, Dr. Carr noted, “when they know they can talk with their parents.”

        They feel free to share anything that happens to them. Whether it's bad or good.

        Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail: cradel@enquirer.com.

       

       



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