Community Conversation: Protecting Our Children

A couple of months ago, a Baltimore mom posted a question on the Southeast Baltimore City Kids listserv and wound up galvanizing a community. Her question was directed at other parents and, though simple, was very important. “I am wondering if there are any local programs/seminars put on by experts for parents on the topic of teaching your kids about strangers, sex offenders, online safety, etc.?” asked Mila Lowery. “Is this a topic that is addressed in school? Or maybe the police department has something? It is scary to think about but necessary.” Although this topic does not involve The New Century School specifically, it is a universal parenting concern and therefore well worth exploring here. This is not a fun post, but certainly a timely one. With the hundreds of teenage girls abducted and still missing in Nigeria last month and this month’s upcoming National Missing Children’s Day (May 25th), this issue is uppermost in the minds of many.

Several moms responded to that initial query posed back in March with anecdotes, books, websites, and advice (see below for a list of some of those resources). One mom, in particular, took up the thread and offered specifics for taking on so-called “stranger danger” (see below for her list of rules). As it turns out, she works with law enforcement locally and throughout the country on abductions, sexual abuse, internet safety, and child sexual exploitation with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Mom and child advocate Cindy Pappas next approached the administration at DuBurns Arena to ask them to host a parent safety night and and allow her to do a presentation for the community. That 2-hour event took place on Wednesday, May 7th and was informative, full of practical tips, and eye-opening to say the least.

Presentation: Protecting Our Children

Ms. Pappas introduced the event and detailed the rules she had previously shared on the listserv. She explained that the goal of her presentation was to help us parents learn how to decrease our kids’ vulnerability. The presentation quickly took a turn that shocked many in the audience. “While it is important to talk about ‘stranger danger,’ ” said Ms. Pappas,  “it is just as important to talk about people your children know and trust.” Most abduction and abuse happens at the hands of people your children know very well, not strangers. While we digested this (unexpected for some) information, Ms. Pappas provided the following abduction statistics:

  • 13,000 missing children in Maryland annually; 1,000 of whom remain unrecovered
  • 69% female
  • 41% age 10–14 years
  • 35% walking to/from school or riding a bike
  • 96% male suspects; 48% white
  • 72% involve a vehicle

Butcher’s Hill mom of three Susan Albrecht said she was attending the event, “to learn how to talk to [her] children about this sensitive matter without scaring them.” According to Ms. Pappas, “the singlemost effective means of protecting your child is communication. If they know they can talk about their true feelings, they will be more likely to reveal that they have been in an uncomfortable situation.” Currently, only about 10% of children who are sexually abused report it. NCMEC provides Discussion Guides broken down by age group; download them here.

A representative from the Baltimore Child Abuse Center spoke next. In addition to providing lots of great handouts such as a Family Safety plan (download here), she drove home the message that 90% of abusers are known to the child—doctor, clergy, neighbor, family, etc. She also updated the good touch/bad touch metric to safe touch versus unsafe touch. Finally, she shared the sickening fact that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday.

The third speaker was a detective from the Baltimore City Police Department who had two main points (and many colorful anecdotes!) to share: First, most abusers are in positions of authority. This is what makes empowering your child to communicate so important, whether to say no to the would-be perpetrator or to feel comfortable enough to tell you when someone has approached his or her inappropriately. Second, if something happens, stay calm and call 911. Don’t try to play detective yourself; don’t increase the child’s distress. Trust the process.

The final speaker of the night was Assistant State’s Attorney Kelly Burrell who urged us to report any suspicious actions we might witness, even if we aren’t sure. “Don’t put your head in the sand,” she said. “If it’s happening or you think it might be happening, tell someone!”

Thank you to all of the speakers for giving their time to the 40 or so audience members who were so keen to get this education. It may not be pleasant to talk about these issues with your kids, but taking some precautionary steps now just might help them stay kids longer. Ms. Lowery (the mom who started the listserv discussion) summed up the event by saying, “I was very grateful to Cindy and the other experts who took time out of their schedules to hold this event for the community. I came away with some great tips and handouts on how to broach the safety topic with young kids. We also gained a better understanding of how the system works from the point of view of the police and the agencies involved in helping to keep children safe and prosecuting offenders.”

“Stranger Danger” Rules

Make sure your children understand . . .

  • That you will never send a stranger to pick them up from somewhere. Establish a “code word” that anyone picking them up unexpectedly would know. Moms on the listserv shared theirs—“meatball,” “pierogi,” etc. Make it something pertinent to your family but that a clever stranger wouldn’t be able to guess.
  • A grownup should never ask a child for help with directions or finding a lost pet. Run away if approached.
  • That if separated in a store or park, to stay where they are; you will find them. Tell them to seek help from another nearby mom.
  • To always ask you before going anywhere and to give you all the details about where they’re going, who is going with them, and when they’ll be back. (For older children.)
  • That it is okay in any situation in which they feel uncomfortable to walk or run away and, if grabbed, to yell, kick, scream, and do whatever it takes to draw attention. Teach them to yell, “This is not my [parent]!” to alert passersby.
  • That they have the right to say no to any touch or actions by others that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. Reassure them that they can tell you anything.
  • The anatomically correct terms for their body parts. Educated = less vulnerable.

For parents to be especially mindful of . . . 

  • Look and listen to small cues and clues that something may be troubling your children. Some children may not be able to tell you when something happens, because they have been threatened that bad things will happen if they do.
  • Pay attention if they tell you they don’t want to be with someone or go somewhere.
  • Notice when someone shows one or all of your children a great deal of attention or begins giving them gifts.
  • Children may be especially fearful of being punished, being embarrassed, or experiencing the loss of the love and respect of their family members and friends. If your children do confide in you, remain calm, noncritical, and nonjudgmental.
  • Be sure to screen babysitters and caregivers.
  • Establish rules and guidelines for computer use for your children.

List of Mom-Vetted Resources

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