Recent crimes stir parents to question kids' safety

Experts suggest balance of protection, freedom


It was a summer evening in Southern California, and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was doing what children all over the world do when the weather turns warm: playing outside. She was with friends in front of her house.

The horrific story of the curly-haired girl, who was found dead on a hillside the day after a stranger kidnapped her, carries a double wallop for parents.

First, there is sadness for Samantha's grieving family. But parents are also wondering, fearfully, whether they should let their children play anywhere without supervision.

The answer depends largely on a child's age and maturity, child-safety experts say. Teen-agers are less vulnerable than preschoolers.

Regardless of a child's age, parents can offer protection while allowing freedom for healthy exploration and independence, safety experts say.

There's no way to ensure any child's safety; in many recent cases, including Samantha's, parents were doing all the expected things to keep their children safe. Kidnapping by a stranger is rare; about 200 cases occur nationwide a year.

"The obvious thing you want to get across is that most people are good people, but there are people you have to be careful about," said Jeff Griesemer, director of operations for Childwatch of North America, a child-safety organization based in Orlando, Fla.

"You hate to not allow kids to be kids; that's not fair. Kids can be kids if they're trained in how to deal with certain situations."

Many parents don't talk to their children about kidnapping or sexual assault because they don't want to scare them. Because these crimes are so rare, the thinking is: Why should they worry their kids? But just as teaching a child about traffic or fire safety can help avoid injuries, so can discussing personal safety, said Griesemer and other experts.

"You have to talk to your children; you have to be candid with them," said Mike Heimbach, chief of the FBI's Crimes Against Children Program. "This is a reality in this society, you have to tell them this could occur."

The trick is to bring up the topic in a calm, helpful way that defuses fears and offers practical and realistic tips, he said. "Let's keep it all in perspective. You don't want to create panic or hysteria."

Add personal safety to the mix of safety tips and lessons you give your child, said Rona Renner, a Kaiser Permanente parent educator and mother of four.

Safety should be talked about on a regular basis, a little at a time, in fun and engaging ways such as role-playing or question-and-answer games, she said.

"Every parent is frightened because we don't want anything to happen to our children. Instead of watching them every second, we have to help empower them to know how to say `no,' to know not to walk away with a stranger," she said.

Rachel Ensler, a Pleasanton, Calif., parent of four and child development specialist with the Livermore school district, teaches parents how to keep their children safe. Over the next few days, she will remind her children of the basics, she said.

"There needs to be some level of freedom in order for children to learn to grow up and be responsible, to handle life. This has to be balanced with the fact that we do live in a less safe world," Ensler said.

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