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Fears aside, abductions decreasing

By , Suzanne Sataline / July 29, 2002


Amy Vandegrift knows the drill: If a stranger rides up in a car beckoning to her outside her suburban Philadelphia home, she's to make a beeline in the opposite direction. "You scream and get your friends to call 911,'' says the 11-year-old.

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Amy has been drilled in the lessons of a postmodern childhood, where kids are taught that smiling strangers should be considered cunning and dangerous.

A spate of kidnappings – the most recent an abduction and slaying of a 6-year-old St. Louis girl last Thursday – has made it an unsettling summer for parents across the nation.

But despite the vivid evidence, kidnapping is not on the rise. Indeed, emphasize law enforcement authorities, such violent cases are decreasing and remarkably rare, in part because children – like Amy – are more street-smart than ever.

For the past 20 years, kids have been coached at home, at school, and through national safety programs to ward off threats.

The FBI estimates that of the 3,000 to 5,000 abductions each year by "nonfamily members,'' only 200 to 300 cases are considered the most serious, involving murder or ransom. FBI statistics show by comparison, that 150,000 attempted abductions fail each year.

"Are kids better prepared, more aware, and more alert today than they've ever been? The answer is yes," says Ernie Allen, president of the non-profit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "But it is unfortunate that some kids are and some aren't."

Two recent cases show how far the nation has come in educating children about how to ward off danger, but also are reminders of the challenges that remain.

Samantha Runnion, 5, was playing with a friend outside her home in Stanton, Calif., earlier this month, when a man stopped his car in front of her house to ask about a lost Chihuahua. She sensed something was wrong and hesitated. When he grabbed for her, she did what children are trained to do: She made a scene, screaming, kicking, and yelling to her friend to get help. That 5-year-old friend gave police a clear description of the man and his car, leading to the arrest of a suspect.

Erica Pratt, 7, also resisted and screamed for help when two men drove up to her Philadelphia rowhouse last Monday and dragged her into a car. She was subsequently bound with duct tape and left alone in a basement, where she managed to escape by gnawing through the tape and calling to some children who pulled her from a window.

Savvy kids still vulnerable

These girls' responses were "remarkable," particularly for their ages, says Mr. Allen. But these incidents also point to how vulnerable children still are.

Despite Samantha's resistance, she still responded to the lure. She stopped to ask about the puppy's size, giving the abductor the opportunity he sought to grab her. She was sexually molested and murdered.

"We can't negate the struggle she put up, but that little girl's life is gone," says Ken Wooden, of Child Lures, a Vermont organization that teaches kids the tools abductors use to ensnare them. "It's time to stop fooling around with all kinds of gimmicks, just look your kid in the eye and say, 'There's no lost puppy. Get away from the person or the car immediately.' " Mr. Wooden's rule of thumb for kids is: Take three giant steps backward and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction, and then immediately tell a parent or trusted adult what happened.