Friday, May 30, 2014

The Serious Side of Paradise: Santa Barbara’s Missing Kids

  This blog is about the happy aspects of traveling to the California Central Coast: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey. But that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the article I wrote originally for a Santa Barbara newspaper for National Missing Children’s Day. My hope is that any of you who read this, regardless of where you are in the world, will be more aware and attuned to this global problem – our kids who go missing. Please share this information – and be mindful of what is happening in your community. Please.

It’s a sad commentary that we even have a National Missing Children’s Day - May 25th - but we do. Every day in the U.S. approximately 2,300 children under the age of 18 go missing, most voluntary, but many not. It’s estimated that 200,000 children annually are abducted by family members, and 58,000 are abducted by non-family members. The recent kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haran has highlighted a staggering problem not only across the globe, but right here in Santa Barbara. Our kids are at risk: from abduction, online predators, and physical sexual abuse which often is the root cause for kids to go missing in the first place.

Tim Hale is a Santa Barbara based attorney with the firm of Nye, Peabody, Stirling, Hale & Miller, LLP who represent victims of childhood sexual abuse in lawsuits against individuals and entities including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, and public and private schools that have either failed to report or have actively tried to cover-up sexual abuse committed by their employees and volunteers. He knows firsthand the devastating effects our kids suffer. “Every child reacts differently - some withdraw and shutdown emotionally, some act with anger, sometimes with inappropriate sexual behavior, sometimes with self-medication through substance abuse,” he says. “Our lawsuits seek not only a monetary recovery for our clients’ injuries, but also the public release of a perpetrator’s personnel file where his employer’s cover-up has allowed him to escape criminal prosecution, rendering him unidentifiable to the public as a threat to children,” says Mr. Hale.

The point is not to live in fear, but to live wisely, to educate our kids and ourselves so we can mitigate those threats. According to the California Department of Justice, in 2011, (the most recent statistics available) there were 958 reports of missing children in Santa Barbara County alone: 908 were reported runaways, 17 were reported lost, 12 were reported family abductions, five were “suspicious circumstances,” and 25 were unknown circumstances. In California, more than 90,000 children were reported missing that year. In 2013 there were nearly 495,000 missing persons under the age of 21 throughout America. Actual numbers of missing children is something of a moving target. Some children go missing due to natural disasters, some are voluntary runaways (the vast majority), some are endangered runaways (classified as suicide risk, physical or mental conditions which might cause them wander off, or circumstances where kids fled to or from some danger), and some have been abducted by a family member, or a stranger. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), an estimated 115 children annually are the victims of the most serious abductions and are either murdered, ransomed or taken with the intent to keep. “The first three hours are the most critical when trying to locate a missing child. Studies indicated that 76 percent of abducted children who are killed are dead within three hours of the abduction,” the NCMEC states. Regardless of the label given to any missing child the Central Coast sees kids go missing in some cases to escape sexual abuse at home, or after a prolonged online “friendship” with a predator.

Online Predators
According to the FBI one in 25 children ages 10 to 17 have received an online sexual solicitation where the perpetrator then tried to make offline contact. “Predators seek youths vulnerable to seduction, including those with histories of sexual or physical abuse, those who post sexually provocative photos or video, and those who talk about sex with unknown people online,” the FBI states. And this is clearly the driving reason parents need to monitor their kid’s social media behavior because with increased sexting (texting sexually suggestive words and pictures), there is the increased likelihood a predator sees this as an easy target. “Boys who are gay or questioning their sexuality are particularly at risk. 25 percent of victims are boys and almost all of their offenders are male,” the FBI says. It seems overwhelming, but being aware of, and admitting, these problems is crucial to the safe-keeping of our kids.

What Adults Can Do
“Every day we hear stories about children who escaped a would-be-abductor because someone talked to them about what they should do in that situation.” says NCMEC’s CEO, John Ryan. “Education and open communication are key to keeping children safer.” Obviously communication is crucial, though it can be difficult. “I can’t say there’s a specific right or wrong way to talk to your kids,” says Mr. Hale. “Every parent-child relationship is different. What I can say is that you need to talk openly and regularly, beginning with younger kids, about the fact their bathing suit areas are theirs and theirs alone, and no one should touch them in those areas except for mom or dad or select caregivers for younger children who still need help wiping themselves.” More often than not these are not crimes of violence, but of emotional manipulation. “It’s important the child understand that no matter how nice a person is being, no matter what they are offering, no matter what elevated status the person has in the child’s eyes, no one should touch the child’s bathing suit areas,” Mr. Hale advises.

With kids who text there is code that has developed, a shorthand language, many parents are clueless about designed to keep texts secretive. For example: “wtgp” (want to go private?); “p911” (parents are coming); “pir” (parent in room); “asl” (age/sex/location) and many others. This covert language can be a clue to what your child is doing. Photos on the other hand are less covert and may seem innocent enough. The website NetSmartz, an on-line resource from the NCMEC, warns: “Posting your child's pictures online could put them at risk for victimization. Using privacy settings to limit access to your children's pictures can help protect them. However, you need to be sure that only people you know and trust in real life are able to see your pictures.” There is no particular way to prevent uploaded photos from being copied. Frankly the only way to ensure no one uses your images is to avoid uploading them in the first place. Even if you use coding to prevent users from right-clicking and saving your pictures, anyone can still screencapture an image, and remember, once an image is online, there is no getting it back.

It’s naive to tell children to think before posting photos when adults don’t understand the potential issues either. So at the very least discuss parameters with your kids: “Personal photos should not have revealing information, such as school names or locations,” NetSmartz advises. “The background of any photo can give out identifying information without realizing it. The name of a mall, the license plate of your car, signs, or the name of your sports team on your clothing all contain information that can give your family's location away.”

What Kids Can Do
Of course it’s not merely what adults can do, but what kids themselves can do. First and foremost they should tell their parents about any unwanted attention, sexual or otherwise, either on-line or from an individual. “Hopefully parents have created an environment where the child feels comfortable telling them such things,” says Mr. Hale. “If telling a parent is not an option, they should tell a trusted adult.” Under California law, most child custodians and caregivers, such as teachers, youth group leaders, therapists, and doctors are mandated to report to law enforcement if they have a reasonable suspicion a child is being sexually abused and a mandatory reporter who fails to take action is subject to criminal prosecution, Mr. Hale advises. Of course many adults don’t want to get involved in someone else’s problem, it’s easier to turn a blind eye, but that only perpetuates the matter. The biggest weakness of parents? “Failing to recognize that anyone can be a perpetrator, that perpetrators more often than not are not the scary looking figure in in the shadows, and openly placing a person on such a high pedestal that a child is terrified of speaking out about them,” says Mr. Hale. The simplest and most obvious rule is the best one. “Perpetrators almost always use secrecy as a weapon, therefore families need a policy of no secrets,” says Mr. Hale. If nearly 1,000 Santa Barbara kids go missing each year, we need to be more vigilant. We have the power to help keep our kids safe, and it’s up to us.

Missing Children’s Day Timeline
May 25th, 1979: Six year-old Etan Patz goes missing in New York. He has never been found.
1979 to 1981: 29 children are murdered in Atlanta, all the result of one man.
1981: Six year-old Adam Walsh is abducted and murdered in Florida. His father, John Walsh, forms the first center for missing children, later hosts America’s Most Wanted.
1982: Congress enacts the Missing Children’s Act.
1983: National Missing Children’s Day first observed by proclamation of President Reagan.
1984: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is founded.
1996: Amber Alert begins. As of April 2014, 688 missing children have been successfully recovered.
2004: Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force (FBI) is formed making it the largest task force of its kind in the world incorporating 40 participating countries.

National Center For Missing and Exploited Children 
California Child Abduction Task Force