Kidnapping and child abduction sits at the very top of our Worry List as parents; there is no worse thought than losing your child to a criminal gang or trafficking syndicate. Being a parent myself, this is a constant fear of mine, and for this reason I thought I’d put together and share my pro-active approach to preventing kidnapping. So first off, let’s answer the following question: why are children most often abducted, and what can we do as parents to prevent this from happening?
Children are vulnerable to criminal networks in any society, and modern trends have seen child abduction used most commonly for ransom, slavery, forced labour and sexual exploitation. In South Africa, criminal syndicates are also taking young children for use in Muti, an African traditional medicine. While there are immediate measures that need to be taken if your child were to be abducted, your best measures as a parent are those that are preventative. While kidnapping for ransom may or may not see a child safely returned once demands are met, it is very unfortunate that in cases of child trafficking the victims are very rarely found.
Our aim today is to first discuss why kidnappings occur, and then go through some simple yet effective methods that parents can take to limit exposure and vulnerability of your precious little ones. This can be achieved by remaining vigilant and situationally aware during daily routines, and without causing excessive effort that may otherwise lead to complacency.
Why Are South African Children [of all Races] Kidnapped?
Before we explain why kidnappings occur, let’s briefly point out the legal difference between a child abduction and kidnapping.
- Child Abduction – this is a crime most often committed by a parent or other guardian who takes a child against the permission of the other parent who has legal custody.
- Kidnapping – this is a much more serious crime which involves the taking or abduction of a person (adult or minor) against their will.
In the broader sense (and not the legal one), when most people refer to child abduction or kidnapping, they are typically making reference to kidnapping of young children by strangers. At least in the case of South African context, where kidnapping crimes are on the rise.
We have already mentioned a few reasons why kidnappings take place, so let’s discuss these in a little more detail.
- Kidnapping for Ransom – the number of kidnapping cases in South Africa has climbed exponentially. Young children are taken against their will and often held for ransom – a sum of money demanded for the release of the captive. While most parents believe that they fall outside of this risk category due to their lack of financial fortune, this is certainly not the case. Criminal syndicates nowadays target families of average to moderate income, demanding smaller amounts of money as the transactions are faster and easier to obtain. It is also important to understand that once a ransom demand has been met, there is no guarantee that the child (or children) will be returned safely.
- Child Trafficking – child trafficking is defined as recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, and/or receipt of a child for the purpose of slavery, forced labor or sexual exploitation. Children may also be trafficked for the purpose of adoption. It is unfortunate that this is often the reason for kidnapping of young children throughout South Africa, and once a child is taken for any one of the above reasons, they are very rarely found.
- Muti (Traditional Medicine) – a trend of kidnapping, followed by murder and mutilation associated with some traditional cultural practices in South Africa are also termed muti killings or medicine murder, whereby body parts are removed from a live victim for the sole purpose of using the victim’s body parts medicinally. These body parts are then often mixed with other ingredients or used alone to make a medicine called muti, as prescribed by witchdoctors (or sangomas).
Is My Child At Risk of Being Kidnapped?
The regrettable but direct answer is YES. Although it is highly unlikely that your child will be taken away from you, all children are at risk, regardless of sex, race, age and geographical location.
Kidnapping takes place all over the world, and for various reasons. Criminal syndicates will travel far and wide to get what they want. They will also travel from province to province looking for an easy target, as this limits exposure and therefore reduces their chances of apprehension. This means that potential kidnappers may even travel into geographical areas that are known to be relatively safe.
Recent crime stats produced by the South African Police Service (SAPS) show that Gauteng is the most-active province in terms of child trafficking, with KwaZulu-Natal following closely behind.
It is important that geographical location does not decide whether you, as parent, follow preventative measures or not. Instead, these measures should be adopted and followed at all times, and engraved into your day to day routine so that they become a subconscious effort.
Subconscious efforts are those tasks which do NOT demand ‘complex decision making or on spot information processing’ and should live in your natural reflexes.
Some Facts About Kidnapping [or Stranger Abductions] in South Africa
- The Outcome – when children are kidnapped, statistics reveal that over 40% of the incidents end with the death of the child.
- Criminal Characteristics & Behaviour – 53% of stranger abductions (non-family abductions) are committed by people known to the victim. These are most commonly conducted by men in their late 20’s, who have at some point had brief contact with the child, such as delivering something to the house, doing minor repairs or property maintenance, or through social media discovery.
- Location – over 70% of the above abductions occur in outdoor areas such as woods, parks and recreational areas, or in the street. Abductions from school grounds and shopping areas are less common.
- Gender – roughly two-thirds (65%) of stranger abductions involve female children with an average age of 11 years. This statistically places young girls in a higher risk category.
- Snatch & Grab – syndicates often work in groups using vehicles for an easy egress. Abduction sites are therefore often located alongside streets and road sides, where very little room is left for a chase on foot.
Simple Kidnapping Prevention Tips That Could Save Your Child’s Life
According to Missing Children South Africa, one child goes missing every 5-hours in South Africa (this figure is not solely related to kidnapping crimes). This is enough to disturb anyone – parent and non-parent alike, and while it does happen in the blink of an eye, there are some very important steps that you can do as a parent to protect your kids.
General Preventative Tips
- Whereabouts – always know your child’s whereabouts! This is one of your primary caregiving responsibilities as a parent.
- Personal Details – teach your child their full name, as well as yours, and their address and telephone number from an early age, and rehearse this with your child at least once or twice each month. Your telephone number should include the international dialling code (+27 for South Africa), for long distance or international calls.
- Emergency Hotline – teach your child how to call the authorities for help. In South Africa, the number your child must learn to dial is 10111.
- Shouting out for Help – teach your child to scream as loudly as possible when they are scared or afraid, and ensure them that it is okay to do this; being safe is more important than being polite. Also teach them to shout out for HELP and use their words. For example, screaming “this is not my father”, is a clear sign of a distressed child rather than an attention-seeking or disobedient child.
- Run, Kick and Make a Scene – in addition to screaming and shouting, your children must be taught to run to safety, or kick and punch as hard as possible if they are being physically handled. When being lifted, they should aim to impact vulnerable areas of their attacker, such as the groin and eye sockets. Speed and noise are key!
- The Safe Word – establish a family code word that only you, your child and a very trusted relative or friend knows. Teach your child to ask for the code word when approached by someone (anyone) offering them a ride or lift home. This includes people that they are familiar with. Note: it is very important that this code work is not discussed with other parents or friends during social chatter.
- Receiving of Sweets & Gifts – teach your children never to take sweets or gifts from strangers. These niceties are often used to lure toddlers away from a distracted parent. If this happens, your child should scream for help and run to safety.
- Instil Awareness – dispel childish assumptions that kidnappers look like monsters. Teach them to beware of strangers asking for help. Children shouldn’t speak to strangers. Tell them that if adults need help or directions, they shouldn’t be asking a child for it; they should be asking other adults.
- Odd Encounters – listen carefully to your child when they speak to you about anyone that they have met or spoken to recently when you weren’t around, and investigate further if something doesn’t seem right. It is important to understand that not all kidnappings are spontaneous, and many professional syndicates will spend time pre-planning and properly organising an abduction.
When Your Children Are At School & Extra Murals
- Drop-off Procedures – when dropping your children at school or other venues, get as close to a secure entrance as possible and keep eyes on your kids at all times until they have safely entered a secure zone. Ideally, walk them all the way into the school venue and drop them off yourself.
- Waiting Areas – establish strict procedures for picking up your children at school. Teach them not to wait for you outside of secure areas, and not to sit too close to the exit while they wait. They should remain inside of the school property and in sight of teachers or trusted members of security. It is also very important that they do not run towards your vehicle once they have identified it, but rather to wait for you to come and collect them in person. Kidnappers may go as far as hiring an identical vehicle make, model and colour in order to lure a child.
- Pickup Procedures – remind your child never to accept a lift from anyone unless instructed by you, or unless they have responded with the correct code word and feel safe about this. If these strict procedures are not met, your child must be taught to run to the nearest trusted adult and report the incident immediately.
- Name Tags – don’t put your child’s name on their school bag or outsides of their clothing (eg. name tags). This makes it easy for potential abductors to call your child by name and develop a false sense of trust. Rather use a keychain of their favourite animal or colour to distinguish their personal belongings from others.
When Your Children Are At Home
- Perimeter Breach – teach your children to never leave home without your permission. This includes chasing a ball down the street or going to pet a passing puppy. Your child must always ask for your permission beforehand and remain supervised when leaving your property. Kidnappers are clever, and will use inventive techniques to get your little ones to leave the house.
- Yard Time – your kids should only be allowed to play unattended in the yard if it is secure and fenced off, and ideally hidden from view of the street. If not, always supervise your kids when playing outdoors, even at home.
- Gates & Locks – this one my seem obvious, but it should be enforced at all times. Driveways should be securely locked when not in use, along with entry points into the house. Leave as few doors open as possible, and fit slamlock mechanisms to all outer doors for automatic locking when closed.
Parks, Restaurants & Recreational Areas
- Emergency Rendezvous – if your child gets lost in a public area, they’ll want to know where to meet you. Always establish an ERV for both yourself and your children should you get separated in a public place. Physically take your children to a designated area upon arrival, and explain to them that if they get separated, they must go there directly and wait for you. The area which you select should be populated and easy to find. An example may include a checkout counter at your child’s favourite toy store.
- Walking Drills – always walk behind your kids, and let them walk ahead of you. This way you will always be able to keep an eye on them. Pay attention to this one when walking on footpaths and in shopping malls.
- Safety in Numbers – avoid public parks and areas that are quiet and isolated. If the area appears unsafe and eerie, move on elsewhere.
- Toilet Time – don’t let your kids go to the toilet alone. You may feel safe in your favourite family restaurant, but remember that a kidnapping can happen anywhere and any time. Take all your children to the rest area together, or pick a table close by so that you can keep eyes on at all times. If you choose the latter method, do a small recce beforehand and ensure that windows are not large enough to pose a threat.
- Child-Minding & Play Areas – if your children are going to be left to their own device in child-minded play areas, ensure that they would need to pass your table in order to exit the venue. If the play areas are outdoors, select an outside table which gives you the best view of the play area, and do not rely on child-minders to keep your children safe.
- Street Cafes – selecting a cafe table close to any public street makes you an easy target. Kids can be grabbed from across the table and pulled into an idling vehicle within seconds. Rather select a table indoors, or choose an alternate eating area away from traffic.
- Don’t Leave Your Kids Unattended – NEVER leave children in a car (or stroller) unattended, not even for a few seconds! This one may seem obvious to any good parent, but it happens, and many would agree that it is totally unacceptable. If you decide to bend this rule for whatever reason, ensure that the vehicle is turned off and the keys are removed and kept on your person.
- High Risk Areas – when travelling through unfamiliar areas, do a little research beforehand. This can go a long way in preventing you from travelling through dodgy areas that are considered high risk. Rather select an alternate route.
- Drivers Side Entry – if you are the only parent or adult travelling in the vehicle, get into the habit of opening only one door for your kids to climb through. This is typically the rear door on the drivers side. Do not let young children climb into the vehicle alone on the opposite side, this makes them an easy target and creates a momentary period of vulnerability.
- Smash & Grab – protective safety film for your vehicle windows is a must! It creates a physical barrier between a potential kidnapper and your child, and may be the difference between a safe getaway and a missing child.
- Doors and Windows – once everyone is seated, lock the doors. Keeping your vehicle doors locked at all times should be a given. No matter how small your journey, or how safe the area is in which you are travelling, doors must always remain locked. Windows should remain closed, or open no more than 20-30 percent of the way.
- Seatbelts – seatbelts are not only useful in saving lives during a RTA, but they also add an additional layer of defence against kidnapping from a vehicle. They must be properly worn and securely fitted at all times, even during those short local trips.
- Gears & Footbrake – it is common for parents to get into the habit of putting the vehicle into neutral with the handbrake on when coming to a stop, specifically when sat at traffic lights and in vehicle congestion. I highly recommend changed these habits. Rather remain in gear at all times when stopped or coasting along, and use the foot brake rather than hand brake, as this will allow for a rapid getaway if needed.
- One Cars Length – leaving a vehicle-sized gap between you and the car ahead (in slow or standstill traffic) will allow room to maneuverer should you need to escape. If a stranger tries to open your child’s door, simply hit the accelerator and away you go.
- Bumper Stickers – bumper stickers are fun and add personality to your family carrier, but they can also give away vital information, breaching security and assisting potential kidnappers. Always be mindful of what information your are displaying on your vehicle.
Social & Digital Media Awareness
This is one of the biggest areas amongst today’s generation where parents fail to protect their children. It is very important to pay close attention to your privacy settings when posting images and videos of your children online, and do not share these with the public. While your kids are the most precious and beautiful creatures in your eyes, other parents do not see them the same way, and do not appreciate the posted media as much as you do. By understanding this, it may remove the need to publicity post potentially sensitive information.
- Information Sharing – teach your kids not to give any information over the phone or social media, including their name and address, and ensure that you follow the same rules. This includes phone calls requesting personal information to claim so-called prizes and so on.
- Loneliness & Vulnerability – your children should not be using social media platforms at a young age, but if they do, it is vital that they are aware of the dangers of social media and online predators. Both parents and kids should not be posting any status updates or information that suggests vulnerability. This includes statements suggesting that husbands/ fathers are out of town or away on business.
- Privacy Settings – ensure that social media platforms are set to only show images and videos of your kids with friends and family. If you are blogging or sharing content with the public, use stock images and refrain from posting personal information. If you are not careful, images of your kids may very well end up on disturbing websites and forums, some of which are dedicated to child pornography. In a worst case scenario, criminal syndicates will use these images to find matches in specific child characteristics as requested by clients of child traffickers. For example, someone may offer a large sum of cash to a syndicate who are able to abduct a 10 year old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.
Result: posting images of your children for public perusal only puts your kids at risk.
What To Do If Your Child Is Lost or Missing
If your child is lost or missing, being able to provide information quickly to the authorities will save them crucial time in searching for your child.
- Notify – call the authorities immediately – 10111.
- Updated Photos – be prepared with a good description of your child. Have a close-up photograph of your child taken every 6 months.
- Characteristics – keep track of and write down details about your child’s appearance, such as height and weight, eye colour, birthmarks, scars, and identifiable mannerisms (such as hair-twisting).
- Fingerprints – have your child fingerprinted, and store these in your safe at home. Check with your local police department for instructions.
- Try to Stay Calm – you are more likely to remember helpful details if you can remain calm.
Roughly 40 people are fatally injured in South African road traffic accidents each day, while figures show that 2 children are kidnapped daily. The thought of your child going missing is a stressful one, but it is also highly unlikely – touch wood. Taking precautions will reduce these risks even further, and having a plan in place in case a child does become lost can help parents breathe a little easier.
Becoming a skilled owner and user of firearms for self defence will also aid in protection of you family and loved ones during an unfortunate incident. If you are to use a firearm against a kidnapper who his trying to flee with your child, you will require full confidence in your ability to hit what you are aiming for. Shot placement is key – consider aiming for the pelvis to inflict a mobility kill and prevent rounds from impacting closer to your child than necessary. The following article may be useful under training for these circumstances: The Importance of Shot Placement in Self Defence.
If you are against using a firearm for self defence or simply do not own one, consider less-lethal weapons such as pepper spray and tasers. These should be readily available at short notice when out in public areas, and proper training must be undertaken in order to use them effectively.
Finally, go through the above preventative tips systematically and frequently, ensuring that you tick all boxes regularly and discuss all necessary points with your kids.
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