It’s every parent’s nightmare: a missing child.
But despite the sensational abduction stories that grab media attention and make good TV drama, Whatcom County doesn’t regularly see that kind of crime. Still, parents should educate themselves as insurance against the unthinkable, local officials say.
“We encourage parents to think about prevention whenever kids are on the move — on a bike, on a skateboard, in the water, in a car, on skis, and we shouldn’t forget snowboards,” said Erica Work of Safe Kids Whatcom County, part of a nationwide organization committed to reducing childhood traumatic injury and death.
Work, a former fire- and life-safety educator with the Mount Vernon Fire Department, conducts the Child Passenger Safety Program, performing free child-safety seat installation checks through South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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“We don’t want to scare people, we want people to build it into their lives so they’re always thinking about safety,” Work said. “We want people to think (about safety) before doing something with their kids.”
Doug Chadwick, chief criminal deputy with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, urged parents to discuss so-called “stranger danger” as part of a larger approach that encourages children to be aware of their surroundings whether they’re out with their parents, on the computer, or at play in the neighborhood.
“We don’t want to be paranoid that every stranger is out to get you,” said Chadwick, who is in charge of criminal investigations. “They just need to be aware of the potential danger. And they need to have a plan.”
Chadwick advises parents to have periodic frank talks that are age-appropriate and tailored to the child’s personality and level of understanding. Chadwick, who earned a bachelor of science in biology from Western Washington University with the goal of becoming a doctor, instead pursued law enforcement and fell in love with the “analytical side” of policing. It’s a career that’s lasted more than 20 years.
He said the term “stranger danger” is a misnomer because most crimes against children — especially sexual assaults — are committed by a family member or someone with close ties to the child.
“The statistics show that with somebody who’s sexually assaulted, it’s somebody that they know. Not a stranger,” he said. “You just need to be aware, educate your kids about what they would do. Kind of role-play” a situation.
“(Tell them) adults don’t ask kids for directions; you don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know. Be wary of an adult who engages kids,” Chadwick said. Children should learn appropriate sexual boundaries.
With that in mind, however, online predators are seen as the newest threat to children and teens — especially through social media.
“The stranger isn’t just walking up to you and offering candy — they’re in a chat room. Some kids are very tech-savvy, but kids don’t always understand the ramifications,” he said.
Once again, Chadwick urged parents to have open and honest discussions with their children about their expectations online. It’s a good idea for parents to “friend” or follow their children’s various accounts and to monitor their online use — even by searching their browser history.
How can parents tell if their children have been or are being sexually assaulted?
“Look for changes in behavior,” Chadwick said. “Kids start to isolate all of a sudden — they do a 180. They don’t want to be around people or don’t want to be around certain people. If your kid’s telling you something, you should believe them.”
A more likely scenario to consider, however, is that the child gets lost or the parent and child become separated.
Parental reaction in that instance depends on the size and type of venue where the child is lost — such as a large store, on the street in a major city, or on a wilderness trail, Chadwick said. He suggested teaching children what to do in several situations by role-playing.
“Educate the child, have the conversation, be aware of potential for danger,” Chadwick said.
Several rules apply in almost any missing child scenario, he said. He urged parents to know specifics about their children — such as height and weight — and note the clothes that they’re wearing.
“Find a person affiliated with the event — don’t panic — get someone who has authority and get them to broadcast that information (description of child),” he said. “All of a sudden, 500 people are doing what you’re doing, looking for that child. Every parent with a kid relates to that.”
For children, Chadwick suggests telling them to look for somebody in a uniform. “That’s usually somebody who’s there to help you,” he said.
Police ID kits are good to have in the event of an emergency, he said. For an effective Amber Alert, authorities will quickly need a description of the child, a recent photo and other pertinent information. A hysterical parent might not be able to focus on relevant details — it’s good to think about this in advance, when you’re not distraught.
Other threats to children include domestic violence and firearms in the home, he said, noting that “a good majority of those (911) calls come from kids” reporting an incident in their own home.
For parents who are gun owners, Chadwick emphasizes proper storage and securing of weapons and ammunition. Free gun locks are available from the sheriff’s office he said.
“Like every other child-safety issue, sit down with your children and explain the danger. Have that conversation,” he said. They shouldn’t fear (guns), but they should know not to touch them and report finding a gun to an adult. Be honest with your kids, because they know.”