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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paging Joe's mom.... Do you know where your son is?

The days before and after Christmas are some of the busiest shopping times of the year, and you'll likely find throngs of people all over the malls. Yesterday I headed to the mall and the place was packed - I wanted to turn around and go home immediately. As I headed into the mall, I saw a little girl hanging out in the entrance to a store, by herself. I glanced inside and saw some people, but have no idea if they were her parents or not.

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Twenty-some minutes later, as I was leaving, I saw her again, still standing in the entrance. I thought about how easily someone could come along and grab her, the place packed with people, and that would be the end of it. Would anyone notice?

A few weeks ago, I went to Kohl's and headed for the fitting room to try something on. There was one other woman in there, and a kid a little older than my son a few doors down, playing in one of the fitting rooms. I was attempting to try on a pair of jeans, but as this kid flopped himself on the floor to peek at us from underneath the partition, I was a little unnerved. Why isn't his mother saying anything? I thought.

Then the other woman left the fitting room and I realized, that's not his mother. 

As I came out of the fitting room, I saw no one else around. No other women were frantically calling for a child, no one was crawling around through the racks, looking for a child hiding inside. The little boy came out, smiled at me and then ran away somewhere. I thought it was strange, but continued shopping. Then I saw him again. Back in the fitting rooms, here, there and everywhere. I found another shopper and asked her apprehensively, "Does this child belong to you?"

"No," she said, looking at me like, I know - I've seen him all over the store, too and it bothers me as much as it does you. We kind of looked at each other like, "Wow," and I said, "He's just wandering around in the fitting room all by himself." She answered something to the effect of, "I don't see any panicked moms looking for him, either."

I managed to snag an employee who was walking by and said something to her. It was about then that the boy came out of nowhere and I heard "Joe! Joe! Where are you?" from in the distance. Was this the elusive mother?

As she was leaving, I overheard her say, "I figured you were running around, doing something stupid." Wow.

I don't want to turn into the world's biggest helicopter parent, but sometimes I think there is such a thing as too much freedom. We live in such a messed up world that one chance encounter can change a child's life, and there's no taking it back. I often look around while shopping and think, Wow, if I were a kidnaper, it would be so easy to just up and walk away with someone's kid. I think about my own children, my son riding his bike around the quadrangle behind our house, and how close we are to a major highway that leads to a major city, and not that far away, another country. How there are often groups of completely strange people hanging around to use buildings for public functions, basketball games, retreats, etc.

Perhaps I'm paranoid. And some people will say that cases of child abduction aren't so much on the rise as we just hear about it more. Perhaps this is true, because such behavior towards children has been around since the dawn of time. I do think we hear about it more, because our society has taken the shame and terror of child abduction and is giving it the screen time it deserves. Before, we never much heard about it - kids disappeared, and pretty much no one would ever know what happened to them. (Ever heard of the Lindbergh baby kidnaping case?) The fact remains that protecting children seems to be taking more of a front seat, instead of sweeping it under the rug, and you can't argue with that.

Easy access to child porn on the internet, I think, is another driving force. It's everywhere, including the images and ideas that our children should grow up way before their time. I don't doubt, in some way, that people who target children find this provocative behavior somewhat alluring. The images of the ten-year-old French model dressed, and made-up, like a fully grown woman come to mind. It almost makes your stomach turn.

I've blogged about this before, but when my son started kindergarten at a Catholic school, volunteers had to go through an extensive, almost mentally exhausting training session that included learning how to identify and report child abuse and inappropriate behavior. It included interviews from the abusers themselves, what they "look for" in a kid (disgusting) and how incredibly easy it is too fool everyone - even parents - into trusting them around children. Jerry Sandusky fits the profile perfectly - including the idea in his own mind that he's innocent, that even though he did extremely questionable things, that it's okay and everyone else has the problem, not him.

I know that the majority of kidnapings are done by members of a child's family, like a disgruntled parent embroiled in a custody battle. That's not even what I'm talking about - because as painful as it would be for the other parent, at least you would know (most of the time, anyway) that your child would be safe because he or she is with a parent. I know statistics show that children are more likely to be abused by a friend of the family or relative than a complete stranger. While that's true, it is still entirely plausible that a child can make contact with someone at the wrong time, ending in tragedy. When you're halfway across the store and don't even know what your kid is doing at the moment, it seems like a recipe for disaster. Finding age-appropriate boundaries can be tough, but necessary, but the key is age appropriate. I'd guess Joe was about four, not even; that is not what I'd call age appropriate. And the fact that mom didn't appear worried is what worries me even more.

We can argue that we're only hearing about abuse and tragic events more now because of our increased access to media and the news; perhaps. But this is not the same world as it was in 1964, that's for sure. When a child and her parents can stage a public altercation in which a perfect stranger pretends to know the child, but is really attempting to kidnap her, and no one comes to her aid - even though she's yelling and screaming - what then? One kid can navigate his way home in New York City and do just fine; another, trusted with the same responsibility, ends up dead because some random stranger decided to target him.

It can be emotionally difficult to cut the apron strings, that's for sure. But I don't want to assume anything - namely that I can trust people anymore - by making it even easier for them.

More reading:
Child Abduction Facts - Parents magazine
Child abduction statistics


Rachel O. said...

This article brings to mind an incident that happened when I was an employee of of a park system... There were two families playing on the beach. Both families had several children and had met on the beach; they did not know each other before that day. They stayed several hours and enjoyed the sun, sand and water. At the end of the afternoon each family packed up their belongings and children. One child was left over. "We thought he was yours" each family exclaimed. The young boy, later learned to be four years old, was turned over to the park employees. The boy's father wass found after a frantic search "asleep" (more likely, passed out)in his tent in the campground, totally out of eyesight of the beach. Dad was unalarmed by the fact that his four year old son had spent all afternoon "alone" and "unsupervised" on the beach. He said that his son was a "free spirit." In this situation, I hate to think what could have happened to this young "free spirit."

Rachel O. said...

I forgot to mention in my previous comment that this certain park DOES NOT have life guards at its beach.

GoodJoan said...

I was in the mall a few years ago, and saw a little kid, maybe 3 or 4 years old, sneak away from his dad and leave a store and start running down the hallway in the mall. I followed him just to make sure he stayed safe, assuming his dad would be right along, but when he started to turn a corner, I stepped in front of him to try to stall him, tried to coax him back to his dad verbally, and then finally just picked him up and carried him back to the store I saw him leave. I hate to admit it, but I was afraid to touch him, lest anyone think I was trying to snatch him, and I'd end up arrested! In the end, my concern for this kid, and what I'd want someone to do for my own kid if the tables were turned, won out. I carried him and said out loud "let's go find mommy and daddy!" over and over in case a security guard saw me first, or the parents thought I was stealing him. When I got back to the store, his mom came running out, yelling back at her husband that he was supposed to be watching him! She saw him in my arms and visibly relaxed. I joked "You must be mom! I saw him slip away from dad, and watched him till he got to the corner. Then I figured it was better to drag him back then risk him getting too far ahead of dad!" I handed the boy over, glad that he was safe, and doubly glad that I wasn't arrested for trying to help! I think both mom and I spent the rest of the night thinking about how easy it was for me to zero in on the kid with my mommy senses and grab him before he got into too much trouble, and how it could have been just as easy for someone with similarly keen senses but less than helpful desires!

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