Child-abduction study finds capable kids are their own best defense

By Donna St. George
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The children most at risk of attempted abduction by strangers are girls ages 10 to 14, many on their way to or from school, and they escape harm mostly through their own fast thinking or fierce resistance, according to a new national analysis.

Probing a crime that is infrequent but strikes fear in the hearts of parents as little else does, analysts from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that children who encountered would-be abductors were usually alone, often in the late afternoon or early evening.

It's a chilling thought for working parents and all those who have asked children to hold hands tightly in crowds or to phone as soon as they get home from school. It calls to mind last year's killing of Somer Thompson, 7, snatched en route from school in Florida as she ran ahead of her siblings, and the highly publicized case of Elizabeth Smart, taken from her Utah bedroom at age 14.

The new analysis examines more than 4,200 cases of attempted but unsuccessful abductions, and it shows that children were their own best protectors.

"They escaped these things not through the efforts of good Samaritans, but through recognizing a bad situation and either getting away from it, avoiding it, or screaming and kicking to draw attention," said Ernie Allen, president of the missing children's center.

In the vast majority of the cases examined, children escaped harm through their own actions. In 16 percent of the cases, an adult stepped in to help.

"The goal here is not to frighten, but to encourage parents to sit down with their kids, talk to them about their safety, and practice these things," he said. "Our overall premise is, kids protect themselves with their heads, and if they are prepared and alert, and if they know what to do and how to respond, they are at far less risk."

Allen said parents should be aware that children targeted in abduction attempts are often preteens and teens in middle grades. More than 70 percent were girls.

Federal studies have found that teenagers are most at risk in non-family abductions.

Older children may be targeted more because they are less likely to be supervised, Allen said, and girls may be more often targeted by sexual predators.

Debbie VanDemark, a mother of two in Silver Spring and PTSA president at Briggs Chaney Middle School, said parents may be surprised to learn that older children are so often involved.

"I think by the time they get to middle school, parents think they are a little more savvy of the world and we don't need to be as protective," she said. That children that age may be especially vulnerable is important to know, she said.

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