Fears aside, abductions decreasing

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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