When Child Safety and Growing Up Don't Mesh

After the Leiby Kletzky murder, parents examine their parenting decisions.

July 14, 2011, 1:33 PM

July 14, 2011 — -- Since 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky was dismembered and killed after getting lost on his way home from camp, parents everywhere cannot help but reexamine their own parenting decisions.

They might wonder: How can they balance concerns over keeping their children safe while allowing them to grow up?

Kletzky had begged his parents to be able to walk home alone. They had finally let him do so on Monday. But in the short distance from his camp to the place where he was to meet his mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., Leiby got lost and met a stranger who killed him, police said.

The case has reminded parents that the worst can happen.

"It is one of the most horrific crimes -- and I've been doing this for over 20 years -- that I've ever heard of," said Nancy McBride, national safety director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

About 58,000 children are abducted in the United States annually by people who have no blood relationship to them, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. By far, most of those abductors are not strangers -- they are a mother's boyfriend, a babysitter, a parent in a custody battle. The great majority are sexually motivated, McBride said, and most of the children are released and return home.

However, about 115 of those cases each year are classic "stranger abductions," said McBride. In as many as 50 of those cases, the child is murdered.

The Kletzky murder, as well as the Jaycee Dugard case, in which an 11-year-old girl was abducted walking to the school bus in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and held captive as a sex slave for 18 years, leaves parents wondering how to make sense of it all -- and how to put the crimes into the context of their lives.

"Kids should have some independence, and we shouldn't be helicopter parents," said Pattie Fitzgerald of Safely Ever After, Inc., a Los Angeles-area consultant who teaches safety to parents and children. "They'll never navigate the world on their own if we don't give them the chance to."

Fitzgerald said parents make the mistake of assuming that if they live in a nice neighborhood, their children can find their way around safely.

But "just like you wouldn't give your kids the keys to the car and say 'go ahead and drive,' you would teach them [first]," she said, children need to be taught tools to be safe.

Here are some tips from experts to keep your young ones safe:

When Should Your Child Be Permitted to Go Out Alone?

While there is no magic number, "Typically, when children are around 12 or 13 years old, they have the wherewithal to be aware of the risks and also have the wherewithal to reach out if they do need help,'' said Rosemary Webb, co-president of Child Lures Prevention/Teen Lures Prevention, a Vermont-based child and parent safety organization.

Webb and others emphasized that every child is different, and parents need to make decisions based on their particular child and situation -- urban versus suburban, the maturity level of the child, the means necessary to get where the child needs to go. If the decision is made to allow the child to travel alone, experts said, parents need to practice with their children to make sure the child knows the route. Children should become familiar with safe locations where they can stop along the way for help.

Rescript the Stranger Danger Talk

Instead of telling children not to talk to strangers, "Teach kids to make judgment calls not based on what a person looks like but, rather, their behavior and what they want you to do,'' said Fitzgerald.

"Most offenders -- kidnappers, sex offenders -- do not look like what a child perceives what a stranger looks like. They don't look like the boogie man. They're friendly,'' said Fitzgerald. "They trick or lure children, saying they need help or assistance."

Children should be taught that if they are lost, they should find a store and ask a clerk behind the cash register or someone in charge for help, or ask a mother with children.

Some safety experts point out that children should be taught that a person in a uniform is not necessarily a safe person and certainly not the only person they can reach out to for help. Police officers may not be around when a child is lost or needs help.

What Your Child Should Do When Approached by a Possible Predator

Children need to learn that, "Safe grownups don't ask kids for help when they're by themselves or just with another kid,'' said Fitzgerald. "A safe grownup shouldn't be asking a child for assistance and it's OK to say no to an adult who is asking for help, and to immediately walk in the opposite direction.

Politeness has its place, but when a child is in fear or danger, she should know that she is free to walk -- or run -- away.

"If they feel scared, if they feel threatened, or if they are grabbed, make a loud commotion, even if the perp says, 'Don't yell,'" said Fitzgerald. "Make a commotion."

Use the Buddy System

Predators are less likely to target a child in a group.

"I don't like kids alone," said Fitzgerald. "That old adage, 'There's safety in numbers,' has merit."

Create a Family Plan of Action

For a time, parents were told to establish a code word with their child to employ in the event that an unexpected person needed to pick the child up. However, many experts now feel that code words are ineffective because predators can ingratiate themselves with the child and learn the code word.

Instead, experts now say to create a family plan of action and to talk through the scenarios with the child regularly. Discuss the possibilities: What do you do if you get lost? What do you do if you need help at the mall? What if there was an emergency in our family, who would come to get you?

Guard Your Child's Privacy

Do not put your child's name on clothing or backpacks. Predators can use the knowledge to catch the child off guard.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

If you think your child is old enough to handle the responsibility, cell phones are a great tool for children to reach out for help and to give parents some piece of mind. But experts warn that batteries run out, children use phones inappropriately and predators would likely know that a phone could lead authorities to them.

For more information and to test your safety knowledge, check out The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website.

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