Missing: keeping kids safe

The thought of a child being abducted is chilling. How do you keep children safe? CyberShrink investigates.

Many of us have been in the position of ‘losing’ a child who wanders away in a supermarket or park while we are distracted. You will know that feeling of sheer panic as you search, and the mixture of bliss, guilt, and anger when you find the child safe. So you have an inkling of what it must be like to really lose a child.

Accurate statistics are hard to find, but large numbers of children are abducted by strangers in South Africa each year, with thousands more abductions being attempted.

One of thousands
In a widely covered and ongoing case, Madeleine McCann went missing in 2007 while unattended in the unlocked family room at a Portuguese resort. The parents, both doctors, were dining nearby. Every parent’s nightmare has come true for this family, and as the questions begin to mount, Madeleine’s parents’ grief must have been awfully compounded with guilt.

On top of everything, they were considered as suspects themselves for a time, although nothing conclusive seems to have been proved. One cannot help recall the case of Lindie Chamberlain, whose baby was thought to have been grabbed by a dingo. Subsequently she was suspected of the crime and ended up going to prison - only to be fully exonerated years later.

The McCanns clearly believe that only by keeping her disappearance in the public eye, does Madeleine stand a chance of being found. There has been more publicity, for longer, about this particular child than about any other missing child in recent history, perhaps in the whole of human history.

She has not been found. Compassion fatigue is setting in, and people are starting to express previously taboo criticism of her parents. Was the child really left in an unlocked room - and how could they? Why was the available babysitting service not used? How did the abductor know when and how to enter the apartment, and which apartment contained children who had been left alone? Why did nobody see her being taken from the complex?

What does it mean that she has not been found?
Perhaps her kidnappers are too clever for the police and public, and have her well concealed. Having ignored or resisted the pleas that have been so widely published, at this stage they’re certainly not likely to suddenly relent and release her.

Or, sadly, the child is already dead and the body so well concealed that it cannot be found.

Speed is critical when it comes to finding lost children. US Justice Department statistics suggest that in cases of so-called ‘stranger abductions’, children are three times as likely to be murdered, often within the first six hours. The sooner people know about the abduction, and what the missing child looks like, the better the chances. The Portuguese police apparently failed to speedily publicise the child's appearance locally, or do a sufficiently rapid and thorough local search, or to set up checks on all borders.

Publicity offers diminishing returns over time, and in fact could add to the danger Madeleine is in: after the initial weeks, there is a significant risk that the abductors might lose hope of getting away with it, and opt to kill the child. The publicity campaign has highlighted a very visible peculiarity of one eye: a notch in the iris. This makes the child more easily identifiable and, unlike hair, it cannot be changed. That is another reason for her abductors to panic and kill the child.

Nothing to report
In the aftermath of the abduction and for weeks thereafter, international TV journalists descended on the area, looking for a story. The Portuguese police declined to release even the minimal information – information that would be routinely available in most other countries in such a case. In the absence of news, TV had to fill the time with something, so “soft reporting” hyped the situation.

When the McCanns themselves were not available for a bulletin, we heard from their family - grannies, aunties, assorted relatives. None of them had anything relevant to say, but they said it anyway.

This is not a good way to find a missing child.

What could you do if it happened to your child?
Publicity can be very useful, but only if it is carefully and knowledgeably planned, and rapidly generated. The earliest days, when events are still fresh in the minds of possible witnesses and associates, are critical.

Better, by far, is to avoid the obvious danger situations:

  • Don't send small children on errands alone. Many abductions occur close to home when a child has been sent to the nearest shop to buy milk or sweets for an adult.
  • Don't let them walk to school unescorted. Send at least one other child with them – most children are alone when they are abducted.
  • ‘Stranger danger” is misunderstood and exaggerated. Most abductions are done by someone who knows the child, and are often related to domestic disputes. Children need to know how and when to raise the alarm, and should also be able to recognise inappropriate behaviour and tell someone about it.
  • However, abduction by strangers is more dangerous, and is more likely to end in the death of the child. Teach children not to approach a car driven by someone they don't know, and not to accept a ride from strangers unless their parents are with them. Children should not approach a driver who asks for directions, but move to a safe place.
  • They should be highly suspicious when a stranger offers sweets, or toys, or invites them to visit and play with a puppy or kitten. Try role-playing, so the child feels confident about how to handle such situations. And talk to the child about his/her options when they need to find a safe place to retreat to.
  • As adults, we ought to develop awareness of suspicious people and movements around our neighbourhoods. Notice strangers who lurk around places where children gather. Abductors usually have spent some time watching the neighbourhood, identifying vulnerable children.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2007)

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