- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Celeste Showers was standing outside her Falls Church home last summer chatting with a neighbor as their young daughters played nearby.

To her surprise, she says, a man drove by, stopped the car and attempted to talk with the children. His success was minimal.

"We called the girls over right away," Ms. Showers says. "It was incredible."

Determining the man's intentions would be a second-guess at best. But the incident, says Ms. Showers, underscored her conviction and that of many other parents, law-enforcement agents and child protectionists that even very young children deserve to be schooled in the rules (and nuances) of personal safety to protect against sexual exploitation or abduction.

About 3,900 nonfamily abductions occur annually and 114,600 more are attempted, according to the Justice Department's National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children. About 19 percent of the perpetrators of these events were acquaintances. The victims are under age 12 in one-third of the sexual assaults reported to law enforcement, according to information released by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

While family members abduct an average of 354,000 children every year, according to the National Incidence Studies, much can be done to help prevent abductions by strangers or acquaintances.

"I can't be with my kids 24-7, so I need to equip them," says Ms. Showers of her children Savanna, 5, and Hunter, 3. Ms. Showers, a stay-at-home mother who is in the last phase of earning a doctorate in clinical psychology, and husband Brian Sulc, an Arlington prosecutor, also are parents of a newborn.

Ms. Showers says she talks to the children about their bodies and "what is OK touching and what is not." The family verbally rehearses what-ifs involving strangers. Ms. Showers reminds Savanna what to do if her mother is not waiting at the school bus stop for her in the afternoon.

Ms. Showers says she and her husband are short on details when explaining the possible consequences to the children.

"We've told them that some people hurt other people, and some grownups hurt other kids," she says. "We tell them that sometimes people do bad things and you don't always know what." Police and child advocates agree that the perpetrators are not choosy.

"Crimes against children show no discrimination," says Nancy McBride, director of prevention education at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, based in Alexandria. "Any child in any neighborhood in any walk of life could be a victim."

Ms. McBride says parents think it won't happen to them.

"Statistically, that isn't true. I've met hundreds of parents of missing children over the years who thought the same thing and found out differently," she says.

"This is the scariest world I've ever lived in and kids know it," Ms. McBride says. "Who can kids count on? They can count on you."

Don't scare, protect

A parent's natural instinct is to protect his children, shielding them from the ills of the world. But even the most diligent parent cannot and should not attempt to preserve their child's "innocence," says Mark Melton, a licensed social worker in private practice in Northern Virginia.

"Despite a parent's best efforts, children are exposed to scary and bad things," he says. "Generally speaking, children will be more afraid if their parents don't discuss fearful subjects."

Mr. Melton advises parents to steer clear of too many facts and focus instead on the child's ability to problem-solve.

"Creating an environment where children feel strong and capable will go far in preparing them for the dangers of the world," he says.

"You can prevent abuse and harm to your child by education," agrees Jan Wagner, founder of Yello Dyno, a company that provides personal-safety materials and curricula to parents, teachers and law-enforcement personnel. Yello Dyno safety methods are taught in more than 500 New York school systems.

"A child has no pattern, so when they hit these situations, they're thinking on their feet," she says. "If you haven't given them some patterns of how to respond, then you're leaving it open."

Ms. Wagner, a longtime educator and mother of two teen-agers in Austin, Texas, says parents can begin schooling their children in personal safety as young as age 3 or 4. A primary lesson is to teach children not to keep secrets, she says.

"One of the first things an abuser will do is set up that the child will keep a secret," Ms. Wagner says. "Tell your child we don't keep secrets and secrets are something that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe."

She advocates teaching children about what she has coined "'tricky people' that's anyone who doesn't tell them the truth. They are tricking you like magicians. The problem with tricky people is that they're way more sophisticated than a child. A person who wants to seduce a child will give them presents, allow them to watch a TV show their parents don't and then tell them to keep a secret."

Children also must be reminded that they do not need to be polite if they feel unsafe.

"If they feel someone is asking them to do something wrong and they don't want to be there, they don't have to be polite. They can get out of there," Ms. Wagner says.

She says role-playing is a significant tool in teaching a child about personal safety.

It's one that is well-used by another Falls Church mother, Stefani, who asks that her last name be withheld. She began to role-play with her young daughter several years ago when, pregnant with her second child, she found herself periodically experiencing dizzy spells.

"I realized that with a 21/2-year-old, I needed to teach her some basic skills in case something happened to mommy. I taught her to dial 911, and then I taught her her phone number and address. I would unplug the phone and lie down on the ground. I'd have her shake my arm and I'd pretend not to wake up, and then she would dial 911."

Stefani's daughter, now age 6, never actually had to call those skills into play, but the rehearsals set the stage for current lessons in personal safety.

Now, says Stefani, she takes frequent opportunities to discuss and rehearse situations with her daughter and son, 3.

"My basic rules are to never allow someone to touch you inappropriately and never accept anything from a stranger, for example. We practice through everyday life experiences. I have them ask for more ketchup at McDonald's, for example, to help them get over the fear of approaching an adult and asking for help should they need it. I challenge them through role-playing, telling stories and asking questions."

Stefani says she is matter-of-fact when discussing dangerous situations. She says she makes sure her discussions are age-appropriate and that she has alluded to what could happen to the children in a general way.

"I try to teach them to listen to their gut feeling a little voice inside them. I use those words. If something doesn't feel right inside, it probably isn't. And that leads to something fundamentally important: courage. I can't stress that enough. I tell my children that it's OK to disagree with or defy a grown-up, which takes a lot of courage."

Family rules

It's up to parents to draw up guidelines for their children to make them less desirable as potential targets, says David Baker, a crime-prevention specialist with the Montgomery County Police Department.

"Give [your children] specific parameters within your family," Mr. Baker says. "Parents will teach their kids about what's appropriate."

Families should role-play, he says, and keep it up.

"Even parents who are very prudent about training their children tend to become complacent after they do the initial lessons," Mr. Baker says. "Don't get complacent because you live in the idyllic suburban neighborhood. In most of those, we have families raising young children. So if I'm a victimizer, I am prone to migrate to those neighborhoods in whatever avenue is open to me whether it's the kids playing alone in the cul-de-sac or the Scout leader."

Ms. Wagner adds: "The most common time to get lax about kids is age 10 to 13. In fact, that is the most likely age for a child to encounter abuse, so it's not a time to let down."

Ms. McBride says: "It's not enough to give the safety lecture. I don't know any children to whom you say something one time and you never have to repeat it again."

A problem is that many parents simply wish to avoid imagining the worst befalling a child, she says, preferring to employ "the ostrich syndrome."

Her advice to parents: "Get past your fear and just remember that ultimately you are responsible for the safety of your child."

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