Keeping Your Child Safe in Today’s World

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By Alice Fulk

Author, Alice Fulk worked as a Crime Analyst for the West Des Moines Police Department for many years, and currently serves as a Legislative Fiscal Analysist. 

For fifteen of the most terrifying minutes of my life, my two year old daughter disappeared.  We were at Iowa State University to watch a parade.  I had taken Mary out of the stroller, gotten a blanket and spread it out, and then taken my infant son out of the stroller.  In those few seconds, Mary was gone.  I could not see her anywhere and I can still feel the sick-to-my-stomach panic of searching through the crowd. My friends, although they hid it well, were also panicking, and one was in search of a police officer.  Fortunately, Mary was found safe and sound, hundreds of yards away, by a family who realized she should not be where she was alone.  She was unfazed by the experience, and after witnessing me crying with relief, then asked me, “Are you all right now Momma?”

I have many unanswered questions about that day, but I do know that those minutes were etched on my soul forever.  Ever since then I have been particularly sensitive to missing children cases, and while I do not know the full extent of what those parents are feeling, I do empathize deeply with them.  After having entered a career in law enforcement ten years ago as a Crime Analyst, I’ve had the opportunity to attend training sessions dealing with missing children.  I am glad to be able to say that stranger abduction, one of a parent’s greatest fears, actually represents a very small percentage of missing children cases.

We learn how to child-proof our homes from the day our babies arrive.  Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to child-proof the world when they get older.  And I think we would all agree that the world is a much different and more dangerous place than when we grew up.  Some of the things that I suggest below are common sense.  There are many resources available that go into more detail than I can here, my main advice would be to educate yourself and not be afraid of arming yourself against these dangers.

  • For younger children, if your child is attending a day care or going to a babysitter, listen to your instincts. If something doesn’t “feel” right, check it out.  Too often we dismiss our feelings as not being reliable, when that little nagging thought that something just isn’t right is a warning sign we shouldn’t ignore.  Listen to your child too.  If you notice changes in attitude, appetite, sleep patterns or general outlook that doesn’t seem right, check it out.   Give your child the confidence to know and to speak out when either a peer or person in authority is coercing them into a situation that is not right or that they don’t feel comfortable with.
  • Try not to scare your child when discussing personal safety. Rather, educate them and give them the tools to make smart decisions and deal with situations as they arise such as fire, injury, weather events, or national disasters.  I frequently quizzed my kids on different scenarios such as, “what should you do if a fire started in the kitchen while you are home?”  or, “if someone drove up while you were walking and tried to get you into their car, what would you do?”  Teaching kids that it is OK to yell and scream and kick and bite if there is a possible abduction occurring is a good thing.  When my daughter started working at our local mall and would leave at night, I quizzed her on different scenarios on how to handle herself walking to her car.
  • Have a code word to use in the case someone other than you or your child’s usual contact has to pick them up from anywhere. This came in handy one day when I recruited a neighbor to transport one of my children to an activity while I was in the hospital with my Mother.  Also, have a meeting place in your town other than your home, or an out of town family member/contact to call to coordinate meeting in the case of a man-made or natural disaster.  What would your plan of action be if a tornado were to hit your neighborhood while your children were in school and you were at work?
  • When your child is old enough to walk to/from school, church or a friend’s house; try to ensure your child is walking with a sibling or friend if possible. Have them check in when they get to their destination.  While I was reluctant to get my kids a cell phone until they reached Jr. High, I had to admit they were very useful tools in knowing where they were.  As kids get older, it’s harder to get them to do the “checking in,” but if it’s been a habit since they were young that helps.
  • In looking at the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, (missingkids.com) I was dismayed to see that one in seven youth who are online have received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet. Direct your child to only chat with or “friend” individuals online that they personally know.   One of the most distressing TV news shows I have seen showed a law enforcement officer, using a fictitious name, posing as a local teenage boy and friending several local teen girls online.  Within a short period of time he knew where they lived, what their interests/activities were, and what their regular schedules were.  Of course, when interviewed before the ruse was explained, all of the girls explained how careful they were and how they would never give out information about themselves to a stranger.
  • If the unthinkable does happen and you determine that your child is missing, do not hesitate to call local authorities. You know your child best, and if you think something is wrong, it is better to call sooner rather than later.  Most missing children’s cases involve smaller children who have curled up somewhere hidden and fallen asleep, have wandered off or are visiting a friend and forgot to tell you.  In those cases law enforcement can provide the resources to search the obvious and not so obvious hiding places.  Older children can sometimes run away for various reasons and will usually return home after a day or two, but having the resources of law enforcement to help look for them can be useful.  If you have a teen going through a difficult time, the more eyes in the community looking out for them the better.  In the rare event of a true stranger abduction, time is of the utmost essence, and if a stranger abduction is suspicioned or has been witnessed, law enforcement should be contacted
  • As your children get older, continue to be involved in their lives. Meet the parents of friends they spend a lot of time with.  Monitor computer usage.  Check cell phone usage, including text messages.  While a child has a right to privacy, I would advocate that for their personal safety these things need to be monitored.  I would wager a bet that you as a parent are probably paying for that cell phone and internet connection.  Don’t feel silly or overprotective when checking up on your children.  That’s your job.  Kids will be kids.  Remember what you were doing at their age?  Probably testing the boundaries in your own way.  That being said, however, I would caution against becoming a jailer rather than a parent in your children’s lives.  It’s a fine line to walk, and a conscious decision I had to make.

The bottom line is that you cannot be with your child or monitor them every minute of the day.  We all have to have faith that we are educating them and arming them with the skills and spiritual tools they need to function in today’s world.

I found this quote by Billy Graham that sums up how my ex-husband and I have tried to work together to raise our children:  “A child needs both to be hugged and unhugged.  The hug lets her know she is valuable.  The unhug lets her know that she is viable.  If you’re always shoving your child away, they will cling to you for love.  If you’re always holding them closer, they will cling to you for fear.”

Eventually, we have to let go and let them fly.  That two year old who was lost that day in 1995 is now in her freshman year of college.  I pray every day that she stays safe and that she remembers the lessons she has been taught.