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S.M.A.R.T. Choices Save Lives

By Trish Berg
Guest Columnist

CBN.comI have many childhood memories, bits and pieces of my life strung together like photographs on ribbon swaying in the wind. I remember skipping for what seemed like hours around the matted, lime green area rug in our basement as my dad played "Skip to My Lou" on his guitar. I remember swimming at Jaquay Lake all the way to the deep end, fearing that somehow sharks might grab my legs. I even remember my favorite teacher of all time, Ms. Romito, who may have only been a sixth grade English teacher, but who taught me more about life than adverbs.

But there is something that I didn’t remember until yesterday, something I must have mentally tucked away in a safe place. That was until I began researching childhood kidnappings for this article.

As I began writing this column, I started remembering a little girl I once knew -- a childhood friend of mine that had been kidnapped. I decided to call my mom to see what she remembered about the incident. She confirmed just about every detail I could remember, and told me that she, too, hadn’t thought about the kidnapping in many years.

When I was about 7 years old, my friend, Ann Marie, was kidnapped right from her own front yard. She was taken away, raped, and then returned later that day to the same spot. I wasn’t with her at the time of the kidnapping, but I remember everything that happened to her after that.

Ann Marie had black hair, bright blue eyes, and a smile that could warm your heart. But after the attack, she was never quite the same. It was as if she had been broken on the inside, and even as a child, I could see the difference.

I grew up in a small, quiet suburban town with white picket fences, dogs on leashes, and neighbors who were more like friends. Who’d have thought a single stranger could steal the innocence of a small town, pervert the naivety of a little girl, and hurt someone as precious as Ann Marie.

But the scariest part of the story is that it wasn’t a stranger at all. Ann Marie was taken and raped by someone she knew, someone she trusted -- her mom’s boyfriend.

Strangers suddenly weren’t strangers anymore to me, and I tucked away fears I didn’t know I had deep inside in places I didn’t know existed. As a little girl with string bean legs and dark brown eyes, the world suddenly looked very big, very dark, and very scary. But somehow, thirty years later, I had forgotten all about Ann Marie.

Now that I’m the mom, I’m supposed to have all the answers, though I have discovered there aren’t always simple solutions in life. My husband and I live in a rural farming town in Ohio, far from the perceived dangers of a big city, tucked safely in the hills with barns and silos, and neighbors who are more like friends. But I have to wonder if anywhere is truly safe.

I know I can’t let fear run my life, and certainly don’t want my own children to be immobilized by their fears. So I am stuck somewhere in the middle trying hard to prepare my own kids to be safe in a great big world without creating a crippling fear of being kidnapped or hurt. It’s a tough task at best, one many parents are struggling with.

We are all saturated with news stories of child abductions, abuse, and murders. According to an article in USA Today (September 2003), “The series of high-profile abductions of children in 2002 raised the country's awareness. The kids spanned the ages of two to 15 and came from all types of families and environments, both urban and rural, across the U.S. In the more horrific cases, the abductor was someone the child did not know. Yet, a recently published study by the U.S. Department of Justice confirms that, compared to the frightening, but relatively rare, kidnappings by strangers, family abductions are commonplace.”

The dark and mysterious strangers offering our children candy aren’t as big a danger to them as someone they already know, someone they might even trust. Although many parents teach their children “Don't talk to strangers,” that isn't always enough, and the memorable Stranger Danger campaign from a decade ago doesn’t address the issues of today.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the US Department of Justice released a study in October of 2002 titled the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART-2). “According to NISMART-2 research, which studied the year 1999, an estimated 797,500 children were reported missing; 58,200 children were abducted by non-family members; 115 children were the victims of the most serious, long-term non-family abductions called ‘stereotypical kidnappings’; and 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.”

That means that approximatelty 25.57 percent of missing children were abducted by family members, and only 7.3 percent of missing children were abducted by non-family members, possibly neighbors or friends. And, according to the study, only about 0.2 percent of missing children were abducted by the stereotypical stranger, someone completely unknown to the child.

In the fall of 2002, a repeat sex offender kidnapped, raped, killed, and dismembered 14-year-old Kristen Jackson within miles of our rural farmhouse in Ohio. Joel Yockey was a neighbor of Kristen’s, someone she knew. When he saw her walking home from the county fair, he offered her a ride. Kristen assumed he was safe since she knew who he was. After all, he was her neighbor. She trusted the wrong person, and it cost her life.

Our entire rural county was shocked at the evil living in our “neighborhood.” My husband and I tried to protect our children from the details of the case, but as soon as my 7-year-old daughter, Hannah, came home from school the next Monday, it was clear that other kids were talking about Kristen’s death.  I cried a lot that night at the loss of Hannah’s innocence and the damage to her trust. I reassured her, as best as I could, that she was safe. At that point, they had Mr. Yockey in custody, and I wanted her to know he was not a danger to her.

That was over three years ago, though it feels like yesterday in many ways. As my children have grown and matured, I have spent time talking with them about who to trust and who might not be safe. I think they have a pretty good grasp on how to make smart choices. But I wanted something more. I wanted something tangible they could grab onto, something they could easily remember.

As I researched dozens of reputable Web sites for information on how our kids can stay safe, it all seemed very overwhelming. So I took the best information they all had, and developed an acronym I can teach my kids.

Making S.M.A.R.T. Choices

Stay with mom and dad. Stay with mom and dad when in public if possible. Older children should use the buddy system when they are unsupervised -- always play, walk, bike, skate, and hang out with a friend – never alone.

Make noise. If someone offers you a car ride, approaches you, or tries to grab you, make as much noise as you can to get someone’s attention. A good thing to yell is “You aren't my Mom (or Dad)!" or “9-1-1!” If you are grabbed or attacked, ALL the rules are canceled – hit, punch, break things, throw rocks, bite, scratch, scream, do whatever it takes to get someone’s attention, get away, and be safe.

 Always stay put. Stay where you are supposed to be, whether it is playing in the park, or walking home from school. Never go anywhere else with anyone except with mom or dad’s permission. Always tell mom and dad where you will be, who you will be with, and when you will be home.

Refuse to give out any information. Never tell anyone anything about yourself or your family -- in person, on the phone, at the front door, or on the Internet -- unless you ask mom or dad first if it’s ok. Never open the door to let someone into your home unless mom or dad says it is okay. Don’t worry about being rude. If in doubt, hang up, get offline, slam the door, and get away.

Trust your instincts. God has given each of us a wonderful sense of right and wrong -- a gut feeling, butterflies in your belly. Trust that feeling. Stay alert and trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, whether you know the person or not, it probably isn’t. Leave the area immediately and get help from a safe adult, like a police officer, a mother with children, or a group of adults nearby.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was created in 1984 as the clearinghouse federally mandated by the U.S. Congress to assist families and law enforcement in cases of missing and exploited children. They do not ascribe to the "stranger-danger" message, and have stated clearly on their Web site that “The ‘stranger-danger’ message is not effective and, based on what we know about those who harm children, danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a ‘stranger.’”

That’s what making S.M.A.R.T. choices is about. Kids should not be on the lookout for a dark and mysterious stranger, but should be prepared by knowing what choices are S.M.A.R.T. choices. They need to have the power to say NO to anyone, and that just because they know someone does not necessarily make them a safe person.

My husband and I tell our kids that the safe people in their lives -- the people they can always trust -- are their mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa. Other than that, they have to ask permission first to go anywhere with anyone else. That’s it. End of story.

When I was a little girl, I discovered that strangers weren’t necessarily strangers, and neighbors weren’t necessarily trustworthy, picket fences or not. I still live in a wonderful place with barns and silos, and neighbors who are more like friends. But I must equip my kids with the tools they need to be safe, and that’s what making S.M.A.R.T. choices is all about.

For more information visit:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

US Department of Justice

Safety Tips for Children K-5

This article first appeared in an e-zine titled Inspired Parenting.

Trish Berg is an author and columnist. Look for her latest books on motherhood in 2007: "Rattled-Surviving Your Baby's First Year without Losing Your Cool" (Multnomah, March 2007) and "The Great American Supper Swap-Faith and Friendship through Co-op Cooking," (Cook May 2007). You can reach her at


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