25 May 2009


To have a child go missing is probably one of the worst things that could happen to a parent. CyberShrink comments on how to keep kids safe.

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.

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.

Publicity offers diminishing returns over time, and in fact could add to the danger a child 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.

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, updated May 2009)


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