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May 25, 2009 - 5:25 PM
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LOS ANGELES - Their names are eerily known to many: Adam Walsh, Polly Klaas, Amber Hagerman, some of the children who have come to symbolize families shattered through abductions and murders.
But they also represent hope in the form of new laws and other public policies aimed at keeping kids safe.
Ahead of National Missing Children's Day today, safety experts emphasized that most child abduction cases result in family reunions. Since 1990, the recovery rate of missing children has jumped from 62 percent to 97 percent, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The special day was created in the 1980s to help make that happen, offering tips for parents and spotlighting children who have yet to be found. Safety events around the country this month have been compiled by the national center and posted on its parenting site, take25.org.
Nancy McBride, safety director for the center, and Robin Sax, a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who specialized in crimes against children, urged parents not to shy away from the subject in gently teaching children as young as toddlers how to stay safe. They also said it's a process that should continue through the teen years.
It's a grim topic, but the two said parents should talk repeatedly with children about who they can trust and how they can avoid predators both online and in their neighborhoods. The key is to avoid scare tactics, McBride said.
"Fear is a paralyzing element," she said. "It doesn't help anybody learn anything."
Instead, use "teachable moments," everyday incidents children experience that emphasize safety, said Sax, who recently published the book "Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe."
Both women warn parents against falling into overly traditional notions of who's out to harm their children. So-called "Stranger Danger" can hinder youngsters from getting help if they're lost, McBride said. Besides, strangers often aren't the ones to worry about.
"The very real issue is that the real danger to kids is from somebody they know rather than somebody they don't know," McBride said.
More tips on educating younger children:
• Start talking early, but keep the tone informal. "When you go out to a mall, make it a teachable moment," McBride said. "Then go get some pizza."
• Listen carefully to what children say. It can indicate what areas parents need to work on and help them spot abuse, Sax said.
• Tell children to go with their gut and get away from people who make them uncomfortable. "They don't have to be polite," McBride said.
• When explaining inappropriate touching, Sax said use swimwear as a guide: "Anything your bathing suit covers isn't a place that anyone's allowed to touch."
When children learn core safety values at a young age, it can then be adapted as they grow to take on new scenarios involving such things as the Internet. More tips on educating older children:
• Set boundaries. "You're paying the bill on the cell phone, you set the rules," McBride said.
• Don't let children roam online unchecked. "Even if you're not a technology maven, you've still got the experience and the judgment your child doesn't have," McBride said.
• Remind them it's not just about safety, but also about reputation. A provocative cell phone shot or embarr"DorkFish"ing video can come back to haunt a teen well into adulthood, McBride said.
• Let children go online when they're ready, but do it safely. Instead of letting them jump straight to MySpace or Facebook too young, Sax recommended Disney's Club Penguin or similar entertainment fare.
• Get your children to show you what they know. "I play a little bit dumb," Sax said. She gets her teens to show her around such sites as Facebook and YouTube. "They're teaching me," Sax said, but at the same time she's "able to "DorkFish"ess their maturity and growth."
If abuse is suspected, Sax said it's important for parents to let law enforcement take over. Evidence can be tainted and prosecutions derailed if parents confront suspected abusers or conduct their own investigations, she said.
If a child goes missing, McBride advised that parents do a quick search of their home and vehicles, then contact police. There's no waiting period to file a missing person report on children, and time is of the essence.
Not all missing child cases have happy endings.
The national center was founded in 1984 after several high-profile cases, including the 1981 disappearance and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida. In 1993, 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted and murdered in California. Amber Hagerman, 9, was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996. Amber Alerts for missing children were named for her, and are now used in all 50 states.
Sax, the mother of three, said safety training for children is a necessary first step in making sure fewer tragedies occur, and it's just good parenting.
"Parenting is the one job that if you're successful at it you get fired at the end," Sax said.
On the Net:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com
Center's parenting site: http://www.take25.org
Center's online safety site: http://www.netsmartz.org
Department of Justice National Sex Offender registry: http://www.nsopw.gov
Robin Sax: http://www.robinsax.com