06/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Far Have We Come? Not Far Enough

In 1983 President Ronald Regan proclaimed May 25 National Missing Children's Day. Each administration since has honored this annual reminder to the nation to renew efforts to reunite missing children with their families and make child protection a national priority. But have we come far enough since 1983 or is National Missing Children's Day only a reminder that we still have so far to go? Are we still are failing our children by choosing to disbelieve them, discredit them, and fail to honor them as the people who deserve to be heard and protected? Are the cases that we know about -- the Caylees, the Haleighs, the Natalees -- really representative of the hundreds of cases that don't get media attention and yet are happening in cities and counties all over the country every day?

So what do the numbers say?

According the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC):

  • 85% to 90% of the 876,213 persons reported missing to America's law enforcement agencies in 2000 were juveniles (persons under 18 years of age). That means that 2,100 times per day parents or primary care givers felt the disappearance was serious enough to call law enforcement.
  • The number of missing persons reported to law enforcement has increased by 468% since 1982.

According to the United States Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Juvenile Justice Bulletin, June 2000:

  • Based on the identity of the perpetrator, there are three distinct types of kidnapping: kidnapping by a relative of the victim or "family kidnapping" (49 percent), kidnapping by an acquaintance of the victim or "acquaintance kidnapping" (27 percent), and kidnapping by a stranger to the victim or "stranger kidnapping" (24 percent).
  • Family kidnapping is committed primarily by parents, involves a larger percentage of female perpetrators (43 percent) than other types of kidnapping offenses, occurs more frequently to children under 6, equally victimizes juveniles of both sexes, and most often originates in the home.
  • Acquaintance kidnapping involves a comparatively high percentage of juvenile perpetrators, has the largest percentage of female and teenage victims, is more often associated with other crimes (especially sexual and physical assault), occurs at homes and residences, and has the highest percentage of injured victims.
  • Stranger kidnapping victimizes more females than males, occurs primarily at outdoor locations, victimizes both teenagers and school-age children, is associated with sexual assaults in the case of girl victims and robberies in the case of boy victims (although not exclusively so), and is the type of kidnapping most likely to involve the use of a firearm.

If any other segment of our population were so impacted, we would declare an epidemic! The Center for Disease Control would fund a cure; we would pass and enforce legislation and increase private and public security. But, since it is only our children, many in our society accept these appalling numbers as status quo. Although there are no quick fixes to the problems of child safety, there are many things that we can do as adults to address and positively impact the issue. So, like everything else, the lessons start at home and that means parents need a reality check and must make time to talk to their kids, share with their kids, and communicate about how to be safe.

So how do we talk to kids about safety both on and offline?

The key to keeping talks about internet safety from being scary, for both parents and kids, is for the parent to take the position that discussions of this nature are nothing to be afraid of! Just because we, as adults, are nervous about "the world out there," we needn't convey our fears to our children. However, there are things kids must know before they dive into the sometimes treacherous world of independent adults.

As trite and over-used as the expression seems, "Knowledge truly is power." I am not suggesting that parents need to tell kids about the gruesome details of every case in the news, or grill them with statistics. But youngsters need to have a solid understanding of how they can defend themselves in ways appropriate to their age.

On its website, the California Department of Justice reminds parents that "we provide safety information to our children in a number of other areas that may seem pretty scary, such as "drop and roll" if your clothes catch on fire or "look both ways when you cross the street."

When it's time to discuss potential or actual sexual abuse from online encounters, the best way to combat the fear associated with such talks is to just start talking! It's never too early to begin to give children information that can help them stay safe. However, you need to treat personal safety like any other parenting lesson -- finding appropriate times, not tackling too many lessons at a time, and considering the child's personal development and ability to understand the discussion.

As teachable moments arise in your daily life, keep these safety tips in mind:

1. Be consistent with your messaging. Watch for and avoid messages that are not realistic or don't make sense. For example, avoid contradictions, such as saying "Don't talk to strangers" and then later, at the store, telling your child to "say bye-bye to the nice grocery man."

2. Become tech savvy, not tech-fearful. The internet is here to stay and it's a great way to learn, research, and connect. Parents must learn about and use social networking sites such as Facebook. Better yet, it's a great idea for children to teach their parents how to navigate them, which naturally opens the communication process between parent and child or tween. The amount of people of all ages on Facebook is equivalent to the 6th largest city worldwide, making it wide open for every kid to explore. Parents must learn to understand this tool so they can create rules that make sense.

3. Empower your children. They already have the tools to teach us how to keep them safe. Talk with them, learn what they know, have them educate you so you know where you need more knowledge. Then discuss these things with your children.

4. Listen to your instincts and teach your children how to find theirs. Instincts rarely lie. When in doubt, trust your instincts. I'm often amazed at how often we as parents would rather give the benefit of a doubt to perfect strangers. If an elevator door opens and something is telling you that the person in there is creepy, don't go in. Too often we worry about political correctness or appearing rude. However, we want our kids to develop that inner "uh-oh" feeling. In order to do that we must listen to our own inner "uh-oh's" and discuss them as they come up in real life.

5. Parents need to teach children to find a trusted adult, even if it is not the parent, as a safe person to disclose to, if necessary. This will be the person they can confide in, talk to, and trust. Kids need to know it is okay, if they don't feel comfortable talking to a parent, to find another trusted adult the parent knows and approves of, who can help them And, they should keep sharing until they get the help they need.

Safety talks are difficult for many parents to broach, as they bring them face-to-face with fear of events out of their control. However, children depend on adults to teach them how to be safe. Such talks are also a great opportunity to bond and learn from your child.

May 25 is simply one day, one reminder about our children, but use this day to remind yourself that our children depend on us to empower them, honor them and especially protect them.