COLUMBIA — Last week's kidnapping and death of a Springfield fourth-grader just blocks from her home has resonated with the nation as a parent’s worst nightmare.
But experts on child safety education say high-profile abduction cases like that of 10-year-old Hailey Owens should not push shaken parents to alarm and poor judgment. Instead, parents should remain calm and look for effective ways to talk to their children about who can be trusted and who may present a threat.
According to a number of news reports, Hailey was walking home from a friend’s house on the evening of Tuesday when a truck pulled beside her. A man driving the truck lured the child by asking for directions, one witness said.
Neighbors watched in horror as the man in a pickup snatched the girl off the street and forced her into his vehicle. Although the suspect is an employee of the school district she attended, police have not been able to determine a connection between the two, according to previous reports, including those in The Missourian.
Hailey's case has elicited renewed fears of “stranger danger.” In the past, this term has been used to warn children to avoid adults they don’t know.
But targeting strangers as the enemy has prompted criticism from some child safety experts and organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
They say isolating strangers as the ones most likely to harm children can have a negative impact on effective child abduction prevention. Today, safety educators contend parents can adopt more reasonable strategies to intercept abduction than relying on the traditional advice, “Don’t talk to strangers.”
Rather than simply learning to avoid strangers altogether, children need to understand what type of situations to avoid and how to react if they do find themselves in potentially dangerous circumstances, said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst.
“We have a false sense of security that our children know what to do to be safe,” Oesterly said. She said parents do need to determine what to tell children in age-appropriate ways.
Missouri KidsFirst, the state chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, promotes a number of strategies to help adults counsel and protect their children.
“We have shifted our focus from talking to kids about protecting themselves to talking to parents about what they need to do to protect kids,” Oesterly said. “And that can include talking to your children frequently about different kinds of abuse, who they are with, and who they are talking to — having good, open communication with children,”
Susan Perkins, K-5 guidance coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, said the elementary schools provide lessons for children and encourage memorization of “Rule 3.”
If children come in contact with an adult who tries to draw them away from a safe place or makes them feel uncomfortable, they are told to remember three key phrases: “Say no,” “Get away,” and “Tell a trusted adult.”
According to research from Cornell University on the effectiveness of child abduction education, children are more likely to benefit from education programs that emphasize instruction and rehearsal, rather than those that simply stress avoiding strangers.
Perkins also said children need to recognize when an adult cannot be trusted. There are certain behaviors that should signal peril.
“An adult should never ask the child for help," she said. "That's a red flag."
As a parent, Perkins uses similar techniques when talking to her own children.
“I tell them to trust that gut feeling. If they feel uncomfortable, get away,” she said. “Scream and make as much noise as possible.”
Emphasizing “stranger danger” has been shown to be less than optimal in the most common circumstances. Child abduction by a complete stranger is rare compared to being taken by someone the child is familiar with, such as a family member.
Abductions that tend to receive the most media attention are referred to as “stereotypical kidnappings.” This is when the victim doesn’t know or is only slightly acquainted with the perpetrator, and the perpetrator has the intent to hold the child for ransom, keep the child permanently or kill.
But these cases are not the norm. National data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings per year, compared to an average of 800,000 overall reported missing children.
As rare as incidents such as the Hailey Owens case may be, they are tragic and extremely frightening. Counselors insist that despite the horror, it’s counterproductive for parents to work themselves into a frenzy or to unnecessarily scare their children with nightmare kidnapping scenarios.
Instead, parents should instill in their children a few key phrases and techniques that have proved effective in making safe decisions.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.