Friday, August 28, 2009

Jaycee, Michaela and Child Safety

Sorry, but I can't stop writing. It's what I do, and it's therapeutic for me. This is all speculation, but my mind just keeps running around and around in circles. I have been thinking about Jaycee, and about whether or not the people who abducted her might have been involved in Michaela's kidnapping. I know Garrido is an old man now, but if you put his photo next to the composite of the kidnapper, the features line up. The car he kept in the back yard looks an awful lot like the car Michaela's kidnapper used. I just have to consider it.

Those are not good thoughts, however, because Michaela was not there with Jaycee, so if they were responsible, that would likely mean that Michaela was no longer alive. So my next thought wanders to why that might be, when they had kept Jaycee alive for eighteen years.

And the answer could be pretty simple. I heard Jaycee's stepdad say that Jaycee was a pretty laid back kid, and because of that he thought she would be able to withstand her circumstances better than some others. From the news that we are hearing, it is true that Jaycee adapted to her circumstances. Interviews with customers of her abductor's printing business indicate that she helped with the family business, interacted with customers with a smile, e-mailed them about their orders and therefore had access to the internet. Nobody can blame this girl for these things. It is easy for kidnappers to gain control of their victim's minds, especially when they are vulnerable children.

One of the reasons I have doubted, over the years, that Michaela could still be alive is that she was so well educated in child safety, she had been so thoroughly armed against that kind of mind control. She'd gone to school in two different school districts and had received child safety training in each. In the summer before her kidnapping, there were two abductions in our area, and so we had discussed it at length. I had emphasized that kidnappers lie. She had been told the lies that they are likely to tell: that your parents don't want you anymore, that if you don't submit to their control that they will kill your family. I don't know whether or not this training would have armed her sufficiently to withstand the circumstances, but she was as well prepared as possible. She was also very intelligent and strong willed. She would have fought and she would have fought hard.

And this is what I would always teach children. The plain and simple fact is that it is extraordinarily rare for the victim of a stranger abduction to ever return home alive. The truth is that they are usually never found. Perhaps there is a cache of missing children somewhere in the world, but we know that almost always, these children end up murdered. I wrote a book on child safety and in it I recommended that a child try to cause a car accident to escape from a kidnapper. Well, I'm reluctant to recommend anything that could possibly result in injury to the child, so I asked an FBI agent who specializes in missing children about it, and she said that it would most likely be the child's last chance.

But if Jaycee's abductor had kidnapped another child, and she had remained non-cooperative, had continued to fight ... well, who knows? He could have just decided to do away with her and find another. This guy was sick. But he obviously wanted someone he could control. He has whole blogs about his hobby of mind control, and claimed to have invented a machine that could control people's minds. Ultimately, I'm betting this guy wanted somebody who would love him, and a child who could do that would save her life.

So in a situation like that, the advice I'd given my daughter, what I'd taught her, could actually have cost her her life.

This is the difficulty in child safety education. Every child abduction that happens shows us a different scenario. It is absolutely impossible for us to teach our children everything, absolutely impossible to tell them exactly what they should do, because it is impossible for us to anticipate what situations they might face. In all the child safety training Michaela had received, nobody had ever thought to say, "if your scooter has been moved from where you left it, don't go get it," so when a kidnapper laid that trap for her, she fell into it.

Most kidnappers are violent sex offenders. They rape, they hurt, they kill, and kids have to get away from them. But some are simple pedophiles. They are sick, yes. They definitely hurt their victims. But they aren't necessarily violent. They don't want to kill children.

How on earth do you explain this to your children? Particularly in light of the fact that most victims of kidnappers are relatively young and unsophisticated in their thinking. It is a huge task, and I recommend having casual conversations on the subject on a regular basis, just a kind of "what if" conversation, which will help teach your children to THINK FOR THEMSELVES.

So I have written a child safety book for children, and I think it's got a lot of good information in it which will help train kids to stay safe. But the primary strength of this book is that I focus on teaching children to use their own intelligence to assess each situation. In fact, the title of the book is "Listen to Your Smart Voice". Because it is impossible for us to anticipate what kinds of dangers our children might encounter, we really need to teach them to think, to be aware. They need to learn to think about their environment, to think about the possible results of their actions. I think this can keep them out of dangerous situations, and possibly help them escape if they end up in danger, not only by being able to assess their situation, but just by the simple fact that they have been taught to STOP and THINK instead of just REACTING out of panic, or fear, or even out of a desire to do something which might lead them into danger. Hey, hopefully it will extend beyond keeping safe from strangers. If kids really learn to listen to their Smart Voice, hopefully it will lead them to avoid dangerous behaviors and associations in other areas of life.

One thing I will say to parents, however, one single safety tip which I think is the most important one of all. DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS GO OUTSIDE ALONE! I know this may sound like a radical concept, but I've raised five kids now so I can tell you it's really not all that radical. This is important first of all because kids who are alone are far more likely to be targeted than kids who are with other kids. This isn't an absolute guarantee of safety, of course. Michaela was with a friend when she was kidnapped. But it does help your odds. And if a child is kidnapped while with a friend, we at least know what happened to them. Most kids who are kidnapped simply disappear. You do not want that to happen. Michaela's case is still being actively investigated. We have an eyewitness, a description of the kidnapper, a description of the car, lots of information the public can report to the police.

Aside from difficulty in solving the case, having a child simply disappear has other horrible repercussions you might not ordinarily consider. One of them is that the family frequently ends up coming heavily under suspicion. We've all seen the sad cases where this is true, but when your child has been kidnapped, to deal with that on top of your grief would be horrible. And then there are your own suspicions. I can't tell you how many people I might suspect of having kidnapped my daughter if there wasn't an eyewitness. Even with an eyewitness I haven't totally ruled everybody out as having some sort of involvement, but I can at least say that they don't look like the kidnapper.

So don't let your kids out alone. If they want to play outside, let them play in your back yard, or go outside with them, or have them play with friends (and remember, the more the merrier!). Walk them to and from school, or have them walk with a group. Accompany them to their friend's house when they want to go and play. And try to make sure that if they are playing or walking (with their buddies), that they are in a public place where there are a lot of people around who can see them, rather than an isolated place.

It's the single best thing you can do.

If you are interested in my child safety book, it's available at amazon.com. It's geared for elementary school age kids, but parents can use it to educate themselves to talk to their younger kids, and even older kids can learn something. But remember, nothing, no child safety education program, is ever going to take the place of what the parents can give their kids. Talk to them. Don't be afraid of scaring them. You don't have to fill their heads with gory details any more than you paint pictures of what happens when you get hit by a car when you teach them how to cross the street safely. Be casual, but make it a part of their everyday lives, a part of their consciousness.

Stranger abductions happen rarely. But they do happen. And if it happens to one child, that is too much -- especially if it is your child. So stay safe.

And my other piece of advice is also to make your children feel loved, and to teach them to make the people around them feel loved and respected. Perhaps in that way we can help prevent today's children from growing up to be predators.

5 comments:

  1. Dear Sharon,

    Thank you for sharing your heart here.

    My 5 1/2 yr old daughter and I lived in Hayward at the time Michaela was taken and we both remember it vividly. Like you I am looking at the similarities between Jaycee and Michaela. Like you it's the car and the face that get me. And the fact that Antioch is so close to Hayward. I am sure the authorities are looking into it as well.

    I hope you get answers. My heart goes out to you and your family.

    All the best,

    Carissa

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  2. Sharon,

    I just want to send you good thoughts at what must be a very difficult time for you.

    I was a campus police officer at the time your daughter was kidnapped and posted missing notices throughout my local area. I have never forgotten your beautiful daughter.

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  3. Sharon, thank you for posting this. I currently live in Hayward and have a 12 and 10 year old. I see their friends walking home alone all the time and I don't get it. Some people think I'm overprotective, but I think I'm doing what is right for me and my family. I hope you get your answers. I remember when Michaela was kidnapped and still think of her often. *hugs*

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  4. Sharon, I just received your book this week, Listen to Your Smart Voice. My youngest daughter (soon to be 9) and I started reading it. We are reading one section per night. I do not want to rush through it. We talk about what we've read and different scenarios that could happen. Also my daughter at different times now will say "my smart voice is telling me...." Thank you so much for using your painful experience to write this book to teach our children to recognize their "smart voice" and to stay safe. You and Michaela are always in my thoughts and prayers. May God bring Michaela home to you very soon!
    April

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  5. Thank you, April. It just makes me so happy when people tell me that their kids are talking about their "smart voice." You know, and I know, that if they actually learn to listen to their smart voice, it can do much more for them than keep them safe from strangers!

    God bless and stay safe!
    Sharon

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