When Child Safety and Growing Up Don't Mesh

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

ByABC News
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.