How Can I Help Parents Worried About a Child Being Abducted?

Mary E. Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC,CFNS


August 12, 2003


Despite statistics to the contrary, several of the parents in my practice continuously worry that their child may be abducted by a stranger. What can I do to alleviate their fears?

Response from Mary E. Muscari, PhD, CPNP, APRN-BC,CFNS

Every year, between 1.3 and 1.8 million children are reported missing in the United States. These children may be lost, runaways, or kidnapped. Some are taken by their noncustodial parent, some by strangers; others disappear leaving few clues as to why. Stranger abductions, including high-profile cases such as Polly Klaas, Samantha Runnion, Elizabeth Smart, and Adam Walsh, are much less common than family member abductions, but statistics can be meaningless to parents who worry about their own children. Unfortunately, a recent survey by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children showed that not enough parents know vital information, particularly their child's vital statistics.[1] Nurse practitioners (NPs) can alleviate parents' fears by teaching them safety measures that can both prevent abductions and better the chances of their child being recovered should an abduction occur.

The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children (NISMART) describes a nonfamily abduction as an episode in which a nonfamily member takes a child by the use of physical force or threat of bodily harm or detains the child for at least an hour without parental authority or lawful permission, or an episode in which a child younger than 15 years or mentally incompetent is detained or voluntarily accompanies a nonfamily perpetrator who takes the child unlawfully or without parental permission and who conceals the child's whereabouts, demands ransom, or expresses the intent to keep the child permanently.[2]

A stereotypical nonfamily abduction occurs when a child is abducted or killed by a stranger or slight acquaintance.[2] The majority of high-profile cases are stereotypical abductions -- children abducted, frequently sexually assaulted, and killed. However, not all nonfamily abductions are stereotypical. Most children are abducted by people they know: babysitters, boyfriends/ex-boyfriends (teen's or parent's), classmates, and neighbors. Some are detained for short periods of time, such as when a babysitter refuses to let the children go home to their parents because she wasn't paid for prior babysitting duties.[2]

The majority of nonfamily abductions take place in streets, parks, wooded areas, highways, and other public, generally accessible, places. By contrast, acquaintance abductions typically occur in the home, but 25% of these kidnappings take place in public places as well. Both strangers and acquaintances rarely abduct from schools or school grounds.[2]

The FBI counts 2100 new missing-children reports per day.[3] These cases can be more easily solved when parents provide descriptive information. Too many parents lack the vital information needed to find their children in those crucial first hours.[1] NPs can make sure the parents in their practices are prepared.

NPs should instruct parents to[4,5,6]:

  1. Keep a complete description of each child, including date of birth, height, weight, hair and eye color, and other identifying characteristics (eg, birth marks, braces, glasses, body piercings, tattoos).

  2. Take an identification (ID) photo of each child every 6 months - every 3 months for children under the age of 2 years. Head and shoulder photos, taken from different angles, are preferable to school and family pictures.

  3. Know where their children's medical records are located and know how to access them. NPs can help parents develop records that can be kept at home.

  4. Make sure the children have up-to-date dental records that can be accessed in the event of abduction.

  5. Have their children fingerprinted by their local police department and keep the fingerprint card in a safe place. The police will not keep the records themselves.

  6. Consider having their children's DNA tested. Fingerprints provide accurate identification, but DNA is far more accurate. For more information on DNA testing and how to get children tested go to DNA File[7] or Kids - DNA.[8] Both Web sites offer at-home testing kits.

NPs should also teach parents to practice general safety measures[4,5,6]:

  • Make sure children know their full name, address, and phone number. Older children should also know parents' names, work addresses, and work phone numbers.

  • Keep communication lines open and never belittle children's fears or concerns.

  • Talk with their children. Kids who talk regularly with their parents have higher levels of self-esteem and assuredness, making them less vulnerable to predators.

  • Never leave young children alone in a carriage, stroller, yard, or public place.

  • Teach young children how to look out for unusual situations instead of unusual people. The mind of a preschooler often envisions a stranger is a moustached male with dark glasses and a trench coat.

  • Be sensitive to changes in children's behavior so they know when something is wrong.

  • Avoid allowing children to wear clothing with their name on it. The perpetrator will use the name to gain the child's confidence.

  • Set boundaries as to where their children can go. Young children should not leave the yard unsupervised, and older children should ask permission. Teens should phone home to tell parents where they are.

  • Establish a parental back-up system so children have somewhere to go in an emergency.

  • Instruct children to tell their parents if an adult asks them to "keep a secret" or if someone offers money, gifts, or drugs or asks to take their picture.

  • Tell children that adults don't usually ask children for directions or help finding their puppy or kitten and to not help those adults who ask for their assistance.

  • Instruct children to not go near the car of a person who tries to talk to them. Children should learn which cars they may ride in. Parents could share a code word with their child known only to family members.

  • Tell children to go for help -- police station, trusted neighbor's house, store -- if someone is following them on foot or in a car.

  • Carefully choose babysitters, nannies, daycare providers, preschools, and after-school programs. Check their references and, if possible, see if they can access the potential care provider's background information. Several states will allow parents to access criminal and sex abuse registries.

  • Know their children's friends and their friends' parents.

  • Know their neighbors.

  • If someone demonstrates a great deal of interest in their child, find out why.

  • Beware of gadgets that promise to keep children safe.

  • Do not rely on martial arts or self-defense training to keep children safe. These may, however, build up children's confidence, fostering self-esteem.

  • Teach online safety - Internet predators pose as children to lure their victims.

  • Teach children to not answer the door when home alone and to not tell anyone that they are home alone.

  • Make sure children know how to dial 911 or other emergency number.

  • Tell children to say "no" to anyone who tries to take them somewhere, touch them, or make them feel uncomfortable in any way.

  • Tell children to never hitchhike.

  • Instruct older children to use the buddy system and to avoid dark, abandoned, or strange places.

  • Inform children to not go into anyone's home without a parent's permission.

  • Have a plan should parent and child become separated while away from home.

  • Tell children to not look for their parent if they become separated while in a public place or shopping area. They should go to the nearest checkout counter, security office, or lost and found, and report that they are lost. Children should never go to the parking lot without their parent.

  • Instruct children to scream, "You're not my parent!" if someone tries to take them away.

Fearing the worst may create undue anxiety for both parents and children. NPs can minimize parental trepidations by teaching parents how to keep their children safe and secure from potential stranger abductions.


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