"He is only a few months younger than Raquel," I heard my mother say in the distance. Just then, my parents turned off the television set and sent my older brother and I to our room. The next day, everything changed. No one told us why, but when we came home that afternoon we weren't allowed to ride our bikes around the neighborhood, or roller-skate or even walk outside alone. "It's not safe," my mother said, as we were dropped off at my grandparents' house. "Please watch them, Carmen," she told my grandmother. "And no TV. I don't want them hearing about Adam Walsh."
But there was no way of shielding us from an event that would mark our childhood. At school, Adam Walsh was all we talked about at recess and lunch. "Why would someone take the little boy with the red baseball hat from his parents?" "Where would they find him?" The following Saturday, as we walked through a department store, my mother squeezed my hand so tightly I started to cry. "I'm sorry my dear, it's just, there are a lot of people and you never know," she whispered. "Stranger danger."
Over a decade later as a young adult, I turned off the television when my little brother walked into my room so that he wouldn't see the news report about Jimmy Ryce. As I dropped him off at practice the next day, I reminded him to wait for me at our usual spot and not to talk to strangers. Today, almost 33 years after Adam Walsh's murder, over 18 years after Jimmy Ryce's murder and nine years after Jennifer Lunsford's murder, the 2014 Legislative Session in Florida will include a reevaluation of the effectiveness of some of the laws enacted after these tragedies.
But in homes all over the United States, while parents lock doors, set alarms and supervise outside activities, their children are aggressively and successfully seeking out and finding strangers. Starting with Omegle with the tag line "Talk to Strangers," to Streamberry's "Cam to Cam Random Chat With Strangers," to Imo.im's "Chat, call, discover," meeting, talking to and sexting with strangers with your parents in the room next door, is all the rage.
And while we know that 90 percent of childhood sexual abuse is committed by someone the child knows, loves and trusts, and not by strangers, and internet chat rooms are nothing new, it is the popularity of what has been now dubbed "extreme social networking" that is concerning school districts.
So as parents and educators, we have to stand up, take notice and set some hard and fast rules that we monitor as closely as we do our doors and windows. We need to be candid with our children about the dangers and consequences of what they might see as a joke and/or entertainment. We need to demand regulation and enforcement of existing cyber and sexual predator laws, but also recognize that some of these predators live outside the United States and take full advantage of jurisdictional limitations. We need to talk to our children consistently about these and other dangers, not to scare them but to inform them and to insure that if and when they are in danger they know who they can reach out to and confide in and, above all, remind them that there are no secrets that are not tell-able.
As I sat on the porch tying my pink and white Barbie roller skates my mother asked: "Where are you going?" "Around the block," I responded without looking up. "No you are not, come inside," she said raising her voice. "Mom, I'm not Adam Walsh. No one wants to take me away. I'm a girl and I'm not scared," I interrupted. "Come inside, Raquel," she said. "Beyond stranger danger we have to talk about your personal safety."
I was seven years old when we had that talk and will be forever grateful to my mother for what she taught me that afternoon.