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MISSING KIDS: The number is down — but keeping your guard up is essential, experts stress

It's not uncommon for a pair of similar news stories to touch off a frenzy of reporting, giving the public the unnerving feeling of an epidemic in progress. In recent months, pictures of Samantha Runnion and Elizabeth Smart have been turning up regularly on television screens, Internet homepages, newsmagazines and newspapers. Arrests (in the case of Samantha Runnion's abduction and murder, of 27-year-old Alejandro Avila) hardly leave parents with a sense of improved security — particularly since Avila is believed to have been a stranger to his victim, allegedly luring her with the pretense of looking for a lost puppy. The disappearance of these two youngsters are just two of a number of recent cases. Attention was also given to abductions occurring in a handful of other states, as well as to the international case of a pair of 10-year-olds in England who were abducted in August and later found dead. Abduction by strangers, as evidenced most recently by Runnion's story, is certainly not unusual. But statistically, the greater threat to children is illustrated by the case of missing 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart, whose prime suspect, Richard Albert Ricci, once served as a handyman at the Smart home. (Ricci died of natural causes while in police custody on August 30, after having been arrested on a parole violation.) According to statistics from the New York State Missing and Exploited Children Clearinghouse, stranger abduction is actually the fourth greatest threat to children — behind runaways, familial abduction and acquaintance abduction. (The Clearinghouse is careful to point out, however, that the numbers for stranger abductions may represent an undercount, given the fact that, typically, a witness must be present for a stranger abduction to be categorized.) The organization's 2001 annual report lists a total of eight stranger abductions in New York State, while acquaintance abductions account for 45 missing children, familial abduction for 209, and runaways by far with the highest number — 19,903. The report also lists 345 children as "lost" and categorizes 1,629 disappearances as "unknown", for a total of 22,139 missing in the state. In Rochester, Janine Lucas, executive director of the New York State branch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, calls this hierarchy of disappearances "traditional" for both the state and the nation. "Stranger abductions tend to grab media attention," Lucas says. "Many of the cases reported in the media this summer were stranger abductions, but some were also acquaintance abductions." The Clearinghouse does not keep the number of total abductions for New York City proper. Each county submits its figures, with the city sharing its totals with Bronx, Kings, Queens and Richmond counties. For 2001, New York County checked in with 5,699 newly reported cases — a total that dropped significantly from 6,640 the previous year. (The number of newly reported cases for 2000 showed an increase of a dozen cases over 1999). As many as 5,916 cases were closed by the end of 2001, leaving the total number of cases still active in New York County at the end of 2001 at 813. Although the high-profile Runnion and Smart cases have put some families on edge, Lucas believes that the media coverage has had an overall positive effect. "We're grateful for the media coverage — it helps get the proper messages out there," she says. "People don't often pay attention unless there's a high-profile case." As for abduction activity within the state over recent months, she observes, "We have no reason to believe that there have been any increases in abductions. What we have seen, here in the New York branch, is a significant increase in people asking for literature and for our programs. They're looking for our services and for education in general." Lucas points out that, in an urban environment, 80 percent of abducted children are taken from within three blocks of their homes. (In suburban environments, 65 percent are taken from within 200 feet of their houses.) For abductions that prove to be fatal, she says that over half of the abductors — 66 percent — had been to the abduction site for a legitimate reason, and that as many as 29 percent had lived in the area. "That could mean almost anyone, that 66 percent," Lucas says. "Think about all the people who might be in your neighborhood on a given day — in a suburban environment alone there could be dozens, all of them there for legitimate reasons." Given the higher ratio of familial and acquaintance abductions to stranger abductions, Lucas recommends not focusing all prevention lessons on the teaching of "stranger danger". "As adults, we talk to strangers every day, but if you teach your kids only 'stranger danger', they won't have a resource for help when they need it, for when they get lost, for example," she says. She stresses the importance of teaching children to find a "low-risk helper" such as a police officer, security guard — or a mom in the area — to go to. "Parents who think that they're protecting their kids by teaching only 'stranger danger' — that's not the case." According to Lucas, it's "rare" for an acquaintance or stranger abductor to keep a child for a long-term period — particularly since the motives in such instances are frequently sexual, and most often committed by white males in their late 20s, many of whom are unmarried, demonstrate socially inept qualities, are unemployed or do semi-skilled labor, and who may have criminal histories which can result in their physically harming their victims. Familial abductors, by contrast, don't fall into narrow profiles, and the abductions, which may last for weeks, months or years, can prove devastating. In 2001 alone, as many as 141 children ages 1-5 were reported as abducted by family members, along with 50 children ages 6-12. "There's a perception that familial abduction is safe," Lucas says. "Familial abduction isn't an act of love; most often, it's an act of revenge. It can be harmful — children can be emotionally damaged by being on the run for months or years, by not going to school, not getting any medical treatment, by not being able to leave the house, and by not having any friends because of the abductor's fear of being caught." When it comes to taking preventive measures, Lucas says it's important to be familiar with the classic lures (the "lost puppy" or the "emergency" involving mom or dad), and to know where a child is going and when, but to also keep everything in perspective. "Have your child practice basic safety rules, but don't let it take over your life," she suggests. For more information, go to

Don’t be stymied by fear: Teach kids the right lessons By Jill Weinlein

The recent abductions of girls throughout the country have caused widespread fear among parents and children. How do we protect our families? How do we talk comfortably with our children about unthinkable acts? The best time to talk to them is now, especially with children back in school. “Use simple and age-appropriate words when talking to your children,” says psychotherapist Dr. Amy Demner. “Graphic details are not necessary. We must discuss these events as real-life lessons. Listen to your children, and talk about their fears.” A survey released by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that nearly 1 in 10 parents have never discussed safety tips outside their home. One in 5 have never developed a plan of action if someone tries to abduct them. “Parents and children always feel safer after learning prevention strategies,” writes Kenneth Wooden in his book, Child Lures. “Preventive education builds awareness and can save lives.” Dangers do exist, but by following these guidelines with your children, hopefully they will avoid or escape from potentially dangerous situations: 1. Don’t put your children’s names on the outside of backpacks, shirts or school lunches. You don’t want a predator to call your child by name. 2. By age 5, your children should know their full name, address, home and cell phone numbers. Teach them what to say to a 911 operator if they have an emergency. 3. Role-play with your children. “Role-playing specific dangerous situations and how to handle them will help your children become more assertive when they need to take action for their safety,” says family therapist Sherry Warschaw. Pretend you are a stranger asking for help in finding a lost pet, asking for directions or offering candy. Tell your children to scream, attract attention and run to a trusted adult for help. Then, have each child play the stranger role and show them how you would react. 4. Reassure your children that it’s OK to tell you anything, even if a person made them promise not to say a word or threatens them. Explain that if a person causes them to feel frightened, confused or uncomfortable, that it’s OK to say NO — even to an adult in authority. “Trust, as in trusting your gut feeling, is key to a child sensing when something or someone is not right,” states Warschaw. 5. Have your children fingerprinted. Many community fairs and local police stations sponsor this service. This document and a recent photograph of your child are very useful when tracking and identifying a missing child. 6. Stress to your children to always check with a parent or caretaker before getting into any car, even if it belongs to someone they know. Be sure they tell you where they are going, with whom, and when they will be back home. 7. Explain to your children that the areas of their body covered by a bathing suit are private and should never be touched by anyone, except a doctor if needed and with a parent present. 8. Have a family code word. It could be a pet’s name or favorite color. If your child is lost or waiting for you and a stranger approaches saying “Your mom had an emergency and asked for me to take you home,” have your child ask for the code word. If the stranger doesn’t know it, the child is to scream and run for help. 9. Stay involved in your children’s lives. Attend school field trips, host play dates and sleepovers. Get to know your children’s friends and families before you allow them to participate in these activities in their homes. Ask if there will be a gun in the house. If you are uncomfortable with the answer, invite your child’s friend to come to your house instead. 10. Share meals with your children and have them share the best and worst that happens to them at school. Listen carefully to their fears and be supportive in all discussions.

It is important parents enhance their awareness of their neighborhood, friends and family. The parents of 7-year-old Megan Kanka, of New Jersey, were not aware that their neighbor was a twice-convicted sex offender until he was charged with the rape and murder of their daughter. Megan’s Law, passed in 1996, provides parents with a list of high-risk predators and offenders in their community. Produced by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service, you can log onto a computer and type in First you need to register your name and address. Next it will ask how you want to search by subdirectory. I typed in my zip code and pulled up a list of serious registered sex offenders in my neighborhood. On Oct. 2, President George W. Bush hosted the first-ever Conference on Missing, Exploited, and Runaway Children to discuss some of the steps that parents, community leaders, and law enforcement can take to prevent such tragedies as the abducted and still-missing Elizabeth Smart, and the kidnapped and killed Samantha Runnion. “We’re vigorously prosecuting those who prey on our children. We need to send a clear message: If you prey on our children, there will be serious, severe consequences,” President Bush told an audience filled with the parents of missing or murdered children. At the conference, the President announced a $10-million expansion of the nation’s Amber Alert systems set up to notify the public about abducted youths; New York State is among more than 20 states to adopt the system in the last year. As you are teaching your children to stay safe, make sure you don’t frighten them. It’s a fine line. Assure your children that you are not trying to scare them, but helping to teach them to be safe so that they may live long and healthy lives. The following are books to read and share with your children: —Child Lures by Kenneth Wooden —Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World by Jan Wagner —My Body is Private by Linda Walvoord —————————————————————

The right way to say it

When talking to kids about “stranger danger” and potentially uncomfortable situations, it’s important to keep in mind just what they can absorb. Here are some guidelines from More information can be found on their website at:

1. The right attitude and approach: Parents must set the right tone for their children. When parents are calm when discussing tough or scary topics, children will be better able to listen and learn. Parents must monitor their own fear and be careful not to alarm their children.

2. Consider the child's age: • 3- to –5-year-old children are curious and may be naturally trusting. They also easily respond to attempts by adults to be kind or supportive. Toddlers and pre-schoolers do not grasp the long-term consequences of potentially dangerous situations.

• 6- to 9-year-old school children are more capable of understanding right from wrong. They are able to remember information and put it into practice, but may get overwhelmed in a difficult situation.

• 10-to 13-year-old children may overestimate their ability to handle a bad situation. They also may feel they should not be scared and be nonchalant in their attitude about risk.

3. Deliver information in a way appropriate to age. Younger children will benefit from playing and repeated conversations. Parents of older children can discuss current events or real situations to educate them about danger.

Do you know what the top 7 safety tips for preventing child abduction are? Visit or call toll-free (877) 569-3714.


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