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Fears aside, abductions decreasing

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Erica Pratt, who escaped her duct-tape binding, didn't have that option. She was familiar with the men who kidnaped her and felt safe when she walked to their car. But experts say the abduction still could have been avoided. Like Samantha, Erica and her sister were outside playing with no adults watching them. Most of the grown-ups in the neighborhood were at a nearby block party.

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"Nothing takes the place of parental or trusted adult supervision and attention," says Nancy McBride, director of prevention education at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Obviously, that's true for younger children, but it's just as true for older children.... There's no book, no video, no gimmick you can buy that can take the place of that," she says.

Ms. McBride is impressed with Erica's escape. But she's also concerned it could send a wrong message. "I don't want parents misled into thinking they can teach their kids how to get out of a dire situation, because their child may not have the same opportunity. What we teach is avoidance."

Teaching prevention and avoidance is a key goal of DARE (Drugs Abuse Resistance Education) programs in the early elementary school years. In Abington Township, Pa., the Philadelphia suburb where Amy Vandegrift lives, police officer Robert Hill visits with students in kindergarten through fifth grade and tries to impart guidelines for what to do when they encounter new people.

"We try to stress the fact that most strangers are good. But some aren't. And since you can't tell the difference, to treat all strangers as bad,'' Mr. Hill says. "It's sad, but it's the way it's got to be.''

Advances in technology may also help parents protect their children, especially in cases like that of Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old who was grabbed at gunpoint from her bed in Salt Lake City June 5 and remains missing. Studies show that homes posted with advertisements of alarm systems are effective in warding off some criminals, such as child predators looking for an easy grab.

A recent innovation called a "panic button," that could be used by a child, sends a loud audible alarm outside the house. "When a criminal hears that, he turns tail and runs because he likes it quiet," says Richard Soloway, chairman of NAPCO Security Systems in Amityville, NY.

Experts say, it behooves parents to calm children's fears and remind them that these cases are rare, and that they need not be inordinately afraid.

Finding the right tone

Some experts warn that placing too much emphasis on the potential threat could itself be harmful. "I do think there's a risk of adding to the anxiety of kids and parents that doesn't really materially improve the safety of kids," says David Finkelhor, of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "In something that's this uncommon, it's really hard to learn lessons from individual cases or small groups of cases." Still, he agrees that the best thing kids can be taught is that if anything makes them uncomfortable, just get away from it fast.

That's been Kate Vandegrift's instinct. As the mother of Amy and six other children, her daily routine is like an air traffic controller, monitoring the movements of her kids around their suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. If Michael, 12, wants to go to a friend's house, she reminds him to call her when he gets there. If the 7-year-old heads down the street, she makes sure one of his siblings tags along. When the girls want to ride their bikes to the Dollar Store, they can set out only before rush hour.

This summer, Mrs. Vandergrift says she's reminded her children of the rules a little more often.