- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Parents must take every precaution to ensure that their children's safety, happiness and innocence are preserved. Law-enforcement agents and child protectionists point to several basics.

First, parents must keep an eagle eye on the seemingly legitimate adults who come into contact with their children.

"Do your due diligence on adults who have access to your kids," says Nancy McBride, director of prevention education at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Parents should not assume that because someone volunteers to be a coach, they are a wonderful, fabulous person," Ms. McBride says. "They might just want to get close to children. When someone volunteers to work with children, we tend not to hold them to higher standards."

Not every volunteer organization conducts background checks on its helpers, she says.

Inquire whether the coaches or leaders are background-screened either via fingerprints or date of birth and a federal check has been conducted.

"You will hear an argument that that costs money, but better that than to have incidents later," Ms. McBride says.

In addition, each state and the District has a sex-offender registry, which parents can access via the Internet to learn whether sex offenders live in their neighborhoods, Ms. McBride says. The registry also can come in handy as a background source when choosing a baby sitter or day care provider.

Another yellow light to parents is the ubiquitous sleepover, says Jan Wagner, a Texas mother of two teen-agers and head of Yello Dyno, a company providing personal-safety curricula.

"Parents need to know who is around their kids," she says. "I recommend parents are not laissez-faire about sleepovers. That's not smart these days with extended families. I only do this for my own kids when I know the family very well."

David Baker, a crime-prevention specialist with the Montgomery County Police Department, says parents should not let any child under the age of 8 or 9 go off by themselves unless it is within a fenced back yard.

"A cul-de-sac doesn't protect them," he says.

A young child is not trained in observation skills, and criminals look for opportunity, Mr. Baker says.

"Anyway, most kids don't act the way the parents think they're going to react even if they've been minimally trained. It becomes a guessing game and question is, do you want to play that game with your child?"

In her book "Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World," Ms. Wagner offers safety tips to parents to help prevent children from becoming lost, abused or abducted. They include:

• You can say no. A child who can say no to an adult when he is uncomfortable or scared will be the child who has a chance to keep himself safe.

• Identify strangers. Because a child cannot tell from the outside if a person is bad or not, he needs to stay away from any person he does not know.

• Cut the dialogue. Your child has one powerful response that will allow him to stop powerful lures in their tracks cut the dialogue.

• Trust your instincts. One of the most important ways to keep your child safe is for him to understand that he should get help if something "feels" wrong or bad.

• Don't get close. Your child should learn to stay at least three arms' lengths away from any adult he does not know.

• Yell. Yell. Yell. Your child can use his natural talent for yelling to protect himself.

• Run like the wind. Your child should know that to run from a suspicious stranger is the right thing to do.

• Break away. While your child cannot "beat up" an adult, she should put up a struggle if she is ever grabbed.

• Tell until someone listens. Your child should be given the power to tell a parent or someone he trusts whenever he has a problem.

• Don't keep secrets. Your child should not keep secrets from parents or caregivers.

• Follow your lost-and-found plan. Your child needs to know what to do and how to get help if she is ever lost.

• Go to the right strangers for help. Your child should know what kind of strangers to go to for help if he is ever lost or in trouble.

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