Stranger and aquaintance dangers: How to keep your child safe

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 115 children are abducted by strangers each year in the United States. But strangers are not always the culprits when it comes to foul play and our children. More often than not, children are at greater risk from acquaintances, family, and friends. These dangers come in many forms, and different concerns are more prevalent at each stage of development:

Abduction — easy prey

During infancy and the early years, children can be kidnapped quickly with no need for coaxing. Leaving a little one unattended in a stroller or locked car for just moments is long enough for an abduction to occur.

When shopping, keep your child in sight at all times. For difficult outings, leave your child with a sitter or use a child safety harness with toddlers. This gadget prevents small children from wandering off and reduces potential danger should parents become distracted.

As soon as your child is old enough to understand, read stories and discuss stranger dangers to reduce the risk of kidnapping.

At home or away, young children should be supervised when they play outdoors. As children grow, keep close tabs on their whereabouts, and never allow them to play unattended in parks, wooded lots, or secluded areas.

Abduction by an ex-spouse, estranged grandparents, or other family member is even more prevalent. More than 200,000 children are abducted by family members each year. If you suspect the possibility of this occurring, take every precaution while abiding by child visitation requirements. If you have serious concern, seek legal advice on how to protect your child when a court order requires that you allow unsupervised visitation with the potential perpetrator.

Sexual predators

As your child grows, new risks develop. Pedophiles and other sexual predators can be anywhere. Although your child could be sexually abused at any age, most pedophiles prefer children nearing puberty. According to Child Lures, a child-abuse prevention program, pedophiles “prey on a child’s sexual ignorance and curiosity.”

Sexual abuse is most often committed by males — of all social and economic backgrounds. Pedophiles often look for access to children by taking a job working with or near them, chaperoning or leading activities and clubs, coaching sports programs, or befriending an adult to gain access to a child. While not all men who work with children are molesters, parents should remain alert to the possibility.

Teach your child what areas of the body are off limits to others and how to say “no” to someone who touches in a way that is uncomfortable. In addition, make sure your child understands that if something does happen, she is not to blame and should tell an adult.

There are a number of changes in your child’s behavior that might indicate something has gone wrong, according to the North American Missing Children’s Association. These include withdrawal, unusual anger, acting out, fear of being alone or with a particular person, or decreased interest in activities, especially those in which the molester is involved. If you notice unexplained changes in your child’s behavior, talk with your child to determine the problem, or seek professional help.

Internet dangers

It would seem stranger danger should decrease as children grow. But strangers and acquaintances just begin to pose risks by different means. Nineteen percent of children ages 10 to 17 who use the internet have been sexually propositioned according to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center of the University of New Hampshire. Although none of the children in the study had been physically victimized, approximately one quarter of the children were distraught over the incidences.

To keep your kids safe on the internet, purchase filtering software. Although filters are imperfect and don’t screen every inappropriate site, they significantly reduce access to danger sites.

In addition, insist your child or adolescent only use chat rooms designed for your child’s age group. This reduces risk of involvement in adult discussions. It’s also good to know some kids’ chat sites are moderated to insure no inappropriate or potentially dangerous discussion takes place.

Make sure your child understands the importance of never giving out his name, address, phone number, or other personal or family information to strangers on the internet, no matter how young or friendly the acquaintance may seem.

Finally, keep a close eye on kids when they use the internet. While teens need their privacy, monitor the situation if an abundance of time is being spent online.

Peer dangers

During the teen years, growing independence makes your teen vulnerable to the risk of rape, and it’s committed by peers and strangers alike. When alcohol and drugs become part of a teen’s social habits, the potential increases.

Teach your teen about the risk and how to be safe. Discuss date rape drugs that are used and the risks they pose, and know the details of your teen’s whereabouts. In addition, enroll your daughter in a self-defense workshop to learn how to defend herself.

If your child is missing

In the unlikely event that your child disappears, here’s what you can do:

• Be prepared. Keep an updated record that includes your child’s hair and eye color, height, weight, blood type, phone numbers and addresses of friends, and a recent photo.

• Be sure to include several strands of your child’s hair with the roots and follicles attached for a DNA sample, and create an impression of your child’s teeth in a piece of sterilized Styrofoam.

• According to federal law, a waiting period cannot be required for reporting missing children. If your child comes up missing, contact your local police department, and make every effort to search for your child while using caution not to disrupt evidence.

Kimberly Blaker is the author of a kid’s stem book, “Horoscopes: Reality or Trickery?,” containing fun experiments to help kids understand the scientific method and develop critical thinking skills.