The Kindness of Strangers: The Bridge Magazine shines a spotlight on the types of scenarios in which our children might be snatched from us; the shattered lives of parents whose children have gone missing or been abducted; and the crusade to throw off the shadows that adumbrate potential future victims.
The ongoing saga surrounding the disappearance of three-year-old British child Madeleine McCann, which first rocked the world news five years ago, has recently taken another new twist after the Portuguese authorities reopened the McCann case, citing new evidence. This has prompted us at The Bridge Magazine to use our latest editorial to raise more awareness of such cases, and to provide parents, teachers and child welfare workers from around the world with crucial information and advice to help to reduce or deter such crimes and prevent other children from being abducted in the future.
The world’s media has always been prompt in splashing sensationalist headlines and broadcasting special crime watch programmes related to issues of missing children. However, it looks as though this approach has not necessarily led to dramatic action or improvement in terms of prevention of such crimes. Regular and useful factual information on the circumstances that tend to preclude child abductions can prove vital in helping to significantly reduce their frequency.
From South Africa to Portugal, from France to America and Canada, or the UK to China, a missing child is any parent’s ultimate nightmare. The world statistics related to missing children are truly beyond belief. According to the Home Office of England and Wales’ Crime Statistics, ‘A child disappears in the UK every three minutes’, whereas in the United States of America, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children recently reported that ‘a child goes missing every 40 seconds; thus 2,000 per day, or roughly 800,000 children, are missing every year in America’.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic: ‘A child goes missing every six hours in South Africa’, according to recent figures released by the South African Police Service Missing Persons Bureau.
In China, official statistics are hard to come by. However, according to the US State Department, up to 20,000 children in China are abducted each year.
But the questions that still burn on the lips are: What are the reasons behind their disappearances? And what useful actions can be taken to protect children and prevent them from being abducted?
In China, for example, two thirds of children are victims of child trafficking, due to Chinese culture’s traditional preference for sons to carry on the family line. The ‘one child policy rule’ of the Chinese Communist Party, inaugurated three decades ago in a bid to restrict family sizes, has fuelled illegal trade in child trafficking.
According to UNICEF, child trafficking is a global problem affecting a large number of children; some estimates record as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year worldwide.
One of the key factors in child trafficking is the sexual exploitation of minors. According to a recent report from the FBI and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), child pornography has become a $5billion annual industry since 2005: ‘The fastest growing demand in commercial websites for child abuse is for images depicting the worst type of abuse, including penetrative sexual activity involving children and adults, and sadism, or penetration by an animal’.
Madeleine McCann is the British girl who disappeared from her bed in the family’s holiday apartment at the resort of Praia Da Luz, Portugal, in May 2007, nine days before her fourth birthday. Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, had brought her and her twin siblings, to the resort in the Algarve region of Portugal, in the company of a group of seven family friends and their five children. Six years on, in 2013, Madeleine has still not been found.
Another heartbreaking story of child abduction was that of Frank Brandon (name changed), the only son of an American couple. On 12 November 2013, the Discovery Channel ran a forensic programme related to his disappearance. Mr. Brandon, the child’s father, and a hotel developer, explained how his son was lured away and abducted by a stranger while he and his wife were distracted for few minutes while the family were out together shopping. The dismembered and decapitated body of the child, aged five at the time, in 2005, was later found by forensic experts dumped in a nearby pond.
Disturbingly, people often involved in child abuse practices or paedophile rings are usually family acquaintances, or even trusted relatives; many hail from unexpectedly ‘conventional’ backgrounds with commonplace profiles. They could be a stepfather, a friend, a family friend, a family member, a teacher, or anyone.
For example, broadly speaking, schools tend to be perceived by parents as the second safest environment for their children outside the home; but unfortunately, this is not always the case.
In June of 2009, in a suburb of Paris, a parent made a shocking discovery: a girl as young as 9, who we will call ‘Wildflower’, was mistreated by her headmistress, then threatened with expulsion from the school if she did not attend sessions with the school psychiatrist, due to her alleged ‘over-active’ behaviour.
Wildflower’s mother suspected something may have been exaggerated as the headmistress’s frequent reports of her daughter’s alleged ‘behaviour’ did not match either her child’s previous school reports or her behaviour when at home. The mother requested for an independent psychiatrist to visit the school to see her daughter, but the headmistress refused, threatening to expel the child from school arguing that according to the school policy children from that school should only attend such sessions with the school’s own appointed psychiatrist. Failure to follow this rule could result in expulsion of the pupil.
After the first visit to the school psychiatrist, the child reported to her mother how the psychiatrist himself had attempted to rape her, and of how he had told her stories of other nine-year-old children who had killed their parents and then taken their own lives.
The child also reported how the psychiatrist chased her round the room until he stumbled and fell over. Wildflower also explained how the school psychiatrist had advised her to keep this incident “secret”, but fortunately for her and her family, she did not.
The mother then reported the psychiatrist’s disturbing behaviour to the headmistress and confronted the school psychiatrist and the senior management staff, threatening to make the story public and to contact the Juvenile Senior Judge in Paris for extreme measures.
Strangely enough, the school psychiatrist was linked to the headmistress, who held a strategic position at the school: she could easily identify those children she believed to belong from broken families and who were thus easy targets for abuse. She would then pick on them, telling lies to their parents about their behaviour as a means to give legitimacy to their being referred to the school psychiatrist, who would in turn abuse them with no fear of ever being caught red-handed. But unfortunately for them, the plucky Wildflower was a poorly-judged target.
The school psychiatrist denied the child’s allegations, arguing that there might probably have been a physical resemblance between him and one of the girl’s previous teachers whom she hated, even though the girl’s parents had never heard of the existence of such a teacher before. The parents eventually took her child out from the school and left the town, where, it subsequently emerged from various other uncannily similar reports of abuse, there was a widespread paedophile ring in operation.
In spite of all the evidence, according to the latest report, the headmistress in question is still in her position at the school, and is no doubt continuing to assist in ‘grooming’ more vulnerable child pupils for abuse.
The more parents in the UK and around the world are aware of the familiar circumstantial warning signs which often surround such illicit abuses of children, the more chance there will be in future for such terrible crimes to be prevented.
Two thirds of schools provide children with useful advise on how to behave towards strangers. However, this can only be fully effective if parents are also made more aware of their responsibilities regarding the safety of their children.
Below is some useful advice to parents, teachers or child welfare workers from around the world to prevent child abductions, with special emphasis on the gradated precautions according to a child’s social background. Each child is different to the next, so factors such as whether or not they come from a broken or dysfunctional family, or, more importantly, how they have been brought up, need to be taken into account for each circumstantially unique case.
The first advice aims to raise parents’ awareness of preventive methods; and the second to educate parents as to the warning signs in their child’s behaviour, making suggestions for appropriate action to prevent any adult exploitation of their vulnerabilities.
Some children are more cautious thus less vulnerable than others; other children will open up easily to strangers, making them particularly vulnerable to adult manipulation. Some are shy, less talkative, and distant from their parents, and very reluctant to tell them of any untoward behaviour directed at them, or to report any suspicious events to their parents, while others are much more ready and willing to give every single detail related to any event or incident.
An awareness of strangers and of strange requests from familiar adults
Explain to your child what they should say and do when a stranger approaches them. Stress to your child how crucial it is to inform you immediately if any adult, including family friends, relatives and other trusted persons known to the child, asks him or her to “keep a secret”.
It is down to parents to provide their children with key advice on how to react and protect themselves from people they don’t know when out on their own.
A paramount rule to pass onto children is: Never accept free lifts in passing vehicles, particularly if they are strangers, but also even if these offers are made from people known to them or to their parents –in short, to never take up an out-of-the-ordinary invitation of this kind, no matter who it is, which has not first been authorised by the parents.
No one can predict the behaviour of anyone, whether it be a stranger, friend, or even family member, when they are left alone with a child.
If your children use school transport, make sure it is supervised and that they are escorted and collected at both ends by parentally authorised persons. Would-be child abductors can be extremely patient –many observe a children’s daily routines and habits closely before setting their traps.
Allowing underage children to shop on their own, even at the local shops or shopping centre, is far too risky. Children should never be left alone anywhere or allowed to open the door by themselves to anyone, even the postman.
Sleep over and birthday parties where parents are not present must be rigorously planned so that one parent escorts and collects the child after an allotted amount of time; though, ideally, such arrangements should be kept to the bare minimum conducive to giving your children some useful experience of brief independence and responsibility over their own safety. Some children may seem to be responsible and mature enough to be able to look after themselves in such situations, but as long as they are underage, extreme caution and meticulous planning must be paramount in the parent’s minds.
Never separate from your child in a public place, even for one second –ensure they are with you at all times and, ideally, that you are holding their hand; unless the child is old enough to understand that you will meet up at a reference point if something goes wrong.
Beware of those who behave as if they are your friends but who do not miss the opportunity to share inappropriate adult comments and language in front of your children. Such loose-tongued conduct from some adults in front of children can sometimes hint at morally lax characters inclined to corruption of minors, or worse, the abuse of them sexually.
Make sure you know your children’s friends, their phone numbers, and that you are always aware where your child is and what they are up to.
You should always keep your diary updated with new friends’ numbers.
You should also always monitor any text messages sent to your children’s phones for signs of inappropriate content.
Early warning signs as to possible abuse or potential for abuse of your children can be deduced from their behaviour, and below are some suggestions on how to react to such signals.
As a matter of precision, our advice is adjustable depending on the type of personality of your child. Parents should know their children better than anyone else.
Make sure you teach your child how to identify him or herself as soon as they learn to talk. They should be able to give their full name, their parents’ full names and address, mobile and work numbers.
You should provide your child with your business card or a plain card on which you may add your personal details. The child can also carry with him or her copy of their passport picture.
Children should know how to use the phone, and what the difference is between a local and an international call. They should also know how to dial an emergency number from their mobile, and parents should always ensure they have enough credit on their mobile.
Children should also know what their local police station number is, as well as the emergency police number in all territories.
Make sure your child always carries with them at least £25, so if anything goes wrong, he or she will have enough cash to get back home –whether by bus or taxi– without having to ask for money from strangers.
Children should never approach strangers who ask directions; they should never ever accept presents from unknown people; never get into a stranger’s car, even if the driver pretends to them that they have been advised by their parents to give them a lift; they should never enter unknown people’s houses or neighbours’ homes without their parents’awareness; and should never play near public toilets or vacant offices or houses.
What if an offender grabs your child’s wrist or attempts to lure them away somewhere or abduct them?
In such a situation, you should pre-instruct your child to make a noise, create a disturbance, or an outburst, to scream out loud for assistance if a stranger ever grabs their hand. They should bite, spit, kick or shout, something like “You are not my mother, you are not my father, no, leave me alone, I don’t know you!”, in order to frighten off the would-be abductor.
To sum up, increasingly scandalous evidence of child mistreatment and abduction has been brought to light during the past decades. If sensationalist headlines and TV programmes about children abductions or abuse are meant to bring the offenders to justice, they should be accompanied by regular and robust campaigns promoting information and awareness concerning child development, wellbeing and safety throughout the world in order to prevent more future child abductions. Information, caution and precautions are the best possible methods to prevent more child disappearances.