April 24, 2008 -- Imagine you're on a busy sidewalk rushing to work, running an errand or simply out for a stroll, when suddenly you notice a little boy standing all alone. Is he really lost? Do you stop to find out?
To find out what people would do in this situation, ABC News hired four young actors, two boys and two girls, all 7 years old and dressed in everyday clothes. The children took turns standing on the corner of a well traveled street in a city near New York with various hidden cameras planted nearby.
'It's Just Not Acceptable'
Each child was equipped with a device in his or her ear so that ABC News producers could communicate with them from a surveillance van nearby. ABC News also hired two plainclothes policemen to keep close watch nearby and to ensure safety. The parents of the child actors also watched from a surveillance room at a nearby restaurant.
Initially, we asked the children to stand in one place and look scared and frightened. Halle, the first actor to participate, walked out to the street corner and acted like a lost child, looking around for help with no guardian in site. A woman stopped almost immediately because, she said, she sees this sort of thing all the time.
But this woman turned out to be the exception. Most people walked right on by. In fact, during our two-day experiment, almost 2,000 people walked by and only 47 stopped to help the "lost children."
It's easy to assume that it only happens to other families or just in the movies: We think that losing a child, even if just for a moment, can't or won't happen to us.
But it does happen. Thousands of kids get lost every day, more than 90 percent of all families will experience it at least once, although the vast majority of lost children are recovered within minutes.
The experiment continued with actor Alexis, who stood on the street corner acting lost and frightened. Several minutes pass, and many adults walked by, but no one stopped to help or even ask if she was OK.
"It is just not acceptable to walk past a child like that and do nothing," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and one of the people who helped design this experiment. "A young child on the sidewalk of any American city by themselves is vulnerable, they are at risk."
In fact, if a parent or caregiver leaves a small child alone on the street it could be a crime. Even so, back on the sidewalk minutes ticked by, and one stranger after another walked by the "lost" child. "People are so preoccupied on their cell phones or paying attention to other things, or in a hurry to get somewhere else," Allen said. "Far too often we just don't look at what's going on around us."
'Someone Else Will Take Care of This'
Many people did look. But they told us that they saw no cause for concern. "She looked cold, she didn't look scared, so I kept walking," passerby Mariellen Zeleck said. "I didn't think she was lost. I thought she was waiting for somebody."
As the experiment continued, we realized that whether the actor was male or female, some people assume that a parent is nearby and that maybe the child is having a time out. "I was looking back and noticing that she was still by herself and wondering if a parent or caretaker was around her," pedestrian Alysan Whelan said.
The people who consistently passed by Alexis seemed to assume that nothing was wrong. But experts said a lost child often masks distress.
"Unfortunately, what tends to happen in the real world is exactly what your actors did in this scenario," child advocate Allen said. "Young children aren't going to ask for help. They just stand there, and that's why we as adults really need to pay attention."
As the experiment continued with Alexis, nearly 10 minutes passed and dozens of people walked by the young actor. She looked confused and sad, but it was not until she began to cry that someone finally stopped and took action.
"You lost your Mom? In the store? Ok, I'll help you. No problem," one woman said.
Allen said many adults possibly didn't want to get involved with the lost child because of the "diffusion of responsibility" rule, which says that someone else will take care of the problem. "I do think there are those who see kids in vulnerable situations like that and think, 'Oh, I don't want to get involved. Somebody else will take care of this,'" Allen said.
Passerby Andrew Lazaroff agreed, saying, "People just don't know what to do. So after a moment of contemplation, maybe, they're just, 'I got to get to work. Somebody else will deal with it,'" he said.
But would gender make a difference in how people respond? Would more people stop if the "lost" kids were boys?
ABC News sent Robert out on the street to find out.
Once again, many people passed him. Some were reading books, and others just walked on by. We asked a few of these people why they didn't stop. "I figured since I was gonna walk back by again, if he was still by himself, I was gonna ask him if he was okay," Erin Kelly said.
Other people had different reasons for not stopping. "There were a lot of people around so I figured his mom was right there nearby," Angie Karpowicz said. "I actually thought he was throwing a fit or crying because of that."
The scenario played out again and again. In fact, it took more than 20 minutes before anyone noticed Robert was lost and came to his rescue: That's four times longer than it took for strangers to come to the aid of our girl actors.
The next actor, Eyalan, received a similar response. Again and again no one stopped. Many people looked, but then they kept right on walking.
After Annette Pasquale passed by Eyalan without coming to his aid she said, "I thought his parents may be in McDonald's. But I would have liked to have stopped, and I didn't."
In retrospect she agreed that she "absolutely" should have gotten involved.
Said Allen, the child advocate: "The reality is I think we as a culture, we as a society, view girls as more in need of our protection. We tend to think of boys as more rugged, more able to take care of themselves. But the reality is more boys are lost than girls; 55 percent are boys, 45 percent are girls."
We asked Allen what to do in the event that you actually do find a lost child. "The first challenge in a situation like this is to reassure the child that they're gonna be okay," he said.
Of all the people who didn't stop, there were some exceptional people who did stop to help our lost kids, "I'm Christina. Listen, I just want you to know, you're doing the right thing. You're not supposed to talk to strangers. They told you that right? I am a stranger and I should call the police … because I don't want you to be scared," she said.
Christina comforted Alexis, and led her to a police officer nearby.
Many people who helped the actors moved them, either to walk to the police station, or to look for a parent in a nearby store. But, in general, experts say it's better to leave the child where he or she is, and call the authorities or 911. "Don't take the child somewhere else," Allen said. "Keep the child in the immediate area. Clearly, if there are those who are searching for her, they're going to return to where she was."
During the course of the two-day experiment, most of the strangers who stopped for the kids were women. "I think men are more likely to be less than willing to get involved, put themselves on the line," Allen said. "I think there is an element of fear: 'If I get involved in this, am I going to be accused of something.'"
But still, some men did intervene, such as David Paris, who maintained his distance from the child actor and called 911 to alert authorities.
Allen suggested talking to your our kids about talking to strangers, explaining that it's a good thing to ask strangers for help sometimes, especially if the child is lost.
Some people showed amazing compassion. One man, Gino Jimenez, was emotionally involved from the moment he spotted Alexis.
"You alright sweetie … what's a matter?" Jimenez asked.
"I just lost my mom," Alexis said. "Then I wasn't paying attention and then she walked away."
"Oh, my God," he said, visibly distraught over little Alexis.
"You're a beautiful little girl, God bless you," he said.
Jimenez enlisted the help of another woman passing by, and told her about the situation. Clearly, Jimenez wasn't going anywhere. Finally, ABC News asked Alexis' mother to come out from the nearby restaurant where she had been watching the scene unfold on a surveillance camera.
Alexis' mother walked over and hugged her daughter.
Jimenez was furious, asking her where she had been.
"I had to go to the bathroom," Alexis' mother responded.
"And you left her unattended?" he said. "You've been gone for a while."
At that moment, ABC News correspondent John Quinones came over and told Jimenez that he had been part of an ethical dilemma experiment about lost children. Jimenez was relieved to hear that the child wasn't really lost.
"Well, it affects me because I have kids," Jimenez said. "And I read about all the things that are happening to kids today. When I see a little girl like that it just breaks my heart; it just tears me up."
More than good Samaritans, some people are true guardian angels, acting as if the lost child was their very own.
Take grandmother Thea Pallermo, who helped Robert. "I'm not a hero," she said. "I'm just a mother who wants to make sure that the kids are safe. That's all."