Decades ago, I attended the funeral for six-year-old Adam Walsh, who had been abducted from a Florida department store while his mother was shopping close by. The case remains an open homicide in Hollywood, FL, almost 23 years, later despite the efforts of Adam’s father, television personality, John Walsh (“America’s Most Wanted”) to have his son’s killer brought to justice.
At the time of Adam Walsh’s death, my youngest children were under two years of age, and the combination of fear and rage I felt over Adam’s fate led me to explore the issue of how parents might prevent the crime of child abduction. Being in the security business at the time, I was aware of some of what could be done by parents (and others who had custody over children in schools and day care centers) to keep those children safe from the most of vile of criminals: those who target children for violence. I volunteered to speak to parent groups about the scope of the problem and about their role in protecting their kids from danger, even on occasions when danger is not perceived to be a problem.
Since that time, the problem has been addressed widely by private organizations and government. Legislation such as Meghan’s Law requires the registering of convicted sex offenders, and the fingerprinting of anyone who works with children has been enacted. We also have the Amber Alert program, which notifies communities immediately on the report of a missing child. Yet despite the important work of private and public groups to prevent the abduction of children, and the efforts made to recover them, a staggering 800,000 children are abducted every year in America, more than 2,000 each day.
To be sure, many of these reports of missing children are custodial disputes between parents who usually mean no harm to their kids, but they are harming them nonetheless. Some are runaways who will return home on their own, but many are not. And for those whose faces turn up on milk cartons and bulletin boards, on the sides of busses and on lamp posts and telephone poles, many will simply disappear, never to be heard from again.
Nowadays, it is easy for ordinary citizens to become so overwhelmed by the threat of large-scale violence in our post 9/11 world that we forget about the insidious crimes committed each day by criminals who are far more likely to inflict pain and loss on the average American family than international terrorism will. And despite the chilling number of missing kids each year, and the families that will never again experience a day without the unparalleled pain that comes from the loss of a child, the majority of us will be spared that horror. Because statistics are still on our side, we too quickly forget that somebody else’s abducted child might have been spared that horror if all of us recognized the foreseeability of crime, and exercised our duty to provide reasonable security to prevent it from occurring.
The parents of children who have been snatched off of the street and from shopping malls, playgrounds, school yards, front yards, and even right out of their beds while asleep at home, relive that horror every day. They never stop asking themselves, “What could I have done to prevent it?” Sadly, in most cases something could have been done to avoid the exposure to abduction risks. Most of us have not been trained to analyze those risks and to develop security against them, but we need to be. While parents are much more aware than they once were to risks of crime, single-parent homes, latch-key kids and busy schedules result in unsupervised children everywhere for predators to pick from, and even children in supervised settings remain vulnerable.
There is new hope for protecting our kids, even under every-day circumstances when they may negotiate their daily activities unsupervised, or supervised by adults unwilling or unable to protect them from harm. Most adults in our society are finally coming to grips with the reality that to be truly safe, we must learn how to identify potential harm and avoid it, deter it, or terminate it on our own or with the help of others nearby. For children old enough to be left alone, training is available for them as well. They can learn how to use such training to their advantage — it can save their lives. Parents, guardians, and others who daily care for children across the nation need to seek out reputable community organizations offering classes on abduction prevention which have proliferated as a result of the increase in notorious abduction cases across America.