This summer I talked with Erin Runnion. Her five-year-old daughter, Samantha, was abducted, molested and murdered almost 10 years ago from in front of their California home. Erin is the founding director of an amazing organization called The Joyful Child Foundation In Memory Of Samantha Runnion. Through her organization, she works around the country to help prevent the sexual abuse and abduction of children by educating them, parents and communities. She also works tirelessly with legislators to toughen laws that allow predators to, evading justice, end up back in our communities to strike again.
Our conversation was months ago. I am just now willing myself to write about this incredible woman and our interview. Because I am not a hardened journalist. Because I want to get it right. Because I am a mom writing about a mother who faced the worst possible thing that could ever happen. The absolute worst thing that could ever happen. I keep hearing that in my head. My own fears are enormous; I have put off writing this post because of how much this hurts my heart and tears into my head. I hope I can do Erin’s story, her mission, and Samantha’s legacy justice in some small way. I was blown away by Erin’s intelligence, passion and commitment before I had met her. When we spoke, I was humbled greatly by her willingness to share about Samantha; Erin shared lovely stories about her very smart and beautiful child–Samantha’s motto was “be brave.” Once we spoke, I could get neither one out of my mind.
Erin speaks often and is in high demand around the country. Her schedule is packed, and I cannot adequately express my gratitude for her taking time to speak with me. I felt like I was speaking to an old friend; she is that warm and open in conversation.
The week before we spoke I had heard Erin on a news program. There had been a horrific abduction and murder of a toddler in Missouri. (My heart is pounding as I write this. Remember, I am a mother too.) In the context of keeping children safe, I heard Erin say that parents should not push their child to be friendly with a person if the child is resistant. Children have a good sense of people and should be taught to trust their instincts, she said. That. That changed the way I parent my children, and not in a small way.
Keeping our children safe is the most important goal for all of us; it is what we do. Everyone parent reading my blog shares this and likely also shares my disgust and horror at discussing the subject of abduction. Please believe me: I feel sick and shaken reading my notes from this interview, doing further research, remembering how kind and generous Erin was during our talk. As a parent, this may be the most important subject about which I ever write.
I would like to use this space to share some of what I took away from our conversation. I found myself gasping several times during the time we were on the phone, saying out loud, “I never would have thought of that. And it’s so simple.”
I asked Erin the most important question I could form, the question we all carry with us: How do we keep our children safe?
Erin told me we must have two-way conversations with our children about safety and strangers. (Simple. And I had never done that. I tried to keep my kids safe without ever letting them know about it. Her way seems easier and smarter.)
Teach your children to dial 911 in an emergency. (I have worked on this with M. After a few “practice runs” I didn’t know about, we seem to be good with it.)
Tell your children you value their safety over everything in the world, that being safe and smart is more important than being nice. If a child has a “funny feeling” (or however he phrases it) about an adult, tell him to trust that feeling; don’t push him to be friendly. We should also trust these feelings–our children’s and ours–and not force situations that don’t seem or feel “right.”
We should ask our children what adults they feel safe being with and going to. (This never occurred to me. I wanted to give my four year old a list of “okay” people.) I have now asked M, “what adults are safe for you to go with or run to if you don’t see me?” We have gone over family, her friends’ parents, her classmates’ parents, her teachers, and other adults with whom she feels safe, and I am relieved to have done this.
Children must be told that adults should never talk to them or give them anything when mommy or daddy is not there. Erin reminded me that children need to be told by us that it is not okay for adults to approach them. They don’t have to be nice to everyone. Erin’s daughter was lured away by a repeat offender claiming to have lost his dog. It is natural for children to want to help adults; children should know they are never to help an adult without mommy or daddy (or caregiver) there. I am telling my oldest: “If an adult talks to you, and mommy or daddy isn’t right next to you, you run away. Adults should never talk to you without daddy or me being there.” Let your child know it is the adult’s responsibility to act appropriately; it is never okay for an adult to approach a child that is alone.
Erin and I talked about the scary scenarios that happen all the time. Your child disappears at the grocery store when you turn your back for three seconds. You have more than one child with you and the oldest runs off in a different direction. (The feeling of terror you are getting as you read this is universal; every parent I know has one story in which they couldn’t see their child for at least a few seconds.)
Erin teaches parents to go on an outing with their child with the specific purpose of teaching them what to do in such a situation. A three-and-one-half or four-year-old child should be able to grasp this. Your child should know that you must always be within a three second distance from each other–your child should be able to run to you within three seconds of your calling her name.
–Take your young child to a populated store.
–Show them where the cash registers and cashiers are.
–Have them turn in a circle yelling your name. Explain: If you do not hear me call back to you, go immediately to the cash register. Stay at the register with the cashier until you see me. Hold on to the register desk. Do not ever leave a store with anyone but the adult you came with–not security guards, not a store worker, not anyone but me.
–Repeat this at different stores and shops–all the places you go together.
I have told my oldest, as Erin suggested, to find a mommy with a stroller and/or little kids if she cannot find me. As well, I am teaching my kids to scream really, really loud if anyone tries to touch them or take them someplace, and run to a mommy with a stroller or little kids. Most child molesters, when interviewed after their incarceration, say that they were deterred by a child resisting the attack.
The Joyful Child Foundation In Memory of Samantha Runnion also runs a program called radKIDS that teaches children over a ten-hour course how to resist aggression defensively. The Foundation also trains adults, or Ambassadors, to coordinate the implementation of radKIDS in the community; it gives Joyful Child Educators tools and information to provide presentations on preventing child abduction, recognizing predatory behaviors, as well as a parent’s companion to radKIDS.
Erin shares her wisdom, and her experience with tragedy and with the justice system to keep other families from ever knowing what she knows. Speaking with her truly changed me, and I think of her words and her positive, encouraging spirit constantly; I think of Samantha’s courage. Please check The Joyful Child website for very critical information and resources on preventing the abuse of more children.
Well… if you want to chat on Twitter tonight – I will be on because there is NO way I’m sleeping now. *sigh* On my list of 3 biggest fears – losing a child. I can’t even imagine the heartache. Thanks for the post. The twins are a bit young (almost 3) for some of these things… but they are definitely on our to-do list. I’m glad you posted it… and glad you gave yourself some time before you posted.
oh I know… I am sorry to bring it to the forefront of your already worried mind. I do feel like at least I have some tools now–I’d like to work more on this as it is truly one of the horrible awful dark things in our world that we CAN change and prevent from happening… be well.
Thank you for having the courage to face your fears. I so appreciate your thoughtfulness and sharing how these suggestions helped you. I hope they serve your readers well. Be brave.
I can’t thank you enough for your time, Erin. You really do the most important work there is. You are inspiration to be brave.
Thank you for reminding me that at 3 & 4 it is NOT too early to teach my children about strangers. I have held off as I thought it would make them afraid of all adults, but as you said, they already know who they feel comfortable with (our friends), and that’s the most important.
Oh Julie, I know. I really struggle with the messages too, but Erin’s suggestions were so much more simple than I could have thought of! And it takes a lot for me to put aside my ego about my children being “polite” and let them be how they want to be around people… for some reason, that is a pointed lesson for me. hope you are all well! xo
Wendy – I can’t believe how incredibly important this is, yet is so often overlooked (by myself included!). I am simultaneously sickened and empowered by this and will post this article everywhere I can – because it is so, so, so imperative that we make ourselves aware. Thank you.
Thank you Jeanne. You are a master at disseminating important parenting information!
So so so important. I’m with Julia. I have been having this conversation with my 9 year old but need to adapt it for my almost 4 year old, too.
We had a horrible incident in our area over the summer and it brought up so many questions. This piece addressed some of them. Thanks and well done.
thank you. I hate that we have to do this. but it also does empower us against some very dark realities.
SIGH. I hate that this is something we have to think about. Chessa just turned two. TWO. How do I teach a two year old these things? I know I have to, but how. The funny in me just wants to leave some quip about never taking her anywhere again, but I know I have to teach her these things and I hate that because I want her to think her world is safe. But as parents, as grown ups, we know that it’s not. Damn. I hate this.
I know… Erin did make me think that the world is a mostly safe place, but we need to have our eyes open and make sure our children have every tool at their disposal. It’s awful that we have to think about this; agreed.
I’m so glad to read this advice. I hate it when parents push their kid to hug me and always say, “If you’d like to hug me it’s OK.” Teaching kids that adults don’t have sovereignty over their own bodies is an unsafe practice. If a kid wants to hug me, they will! I wouldn’t force an adult friend to hug anyone!
I’d add that it can go for the people who (statistically speaking) are most likely to hurt children–adults the child knows. I remember my parents rehearsing various scenarios with me, like, “If a stranger comes up to you when you’re walking home and says Mommy has been hurt and you need to go with her, what do you do?” I always got those right, but would get tripped up on “If [neighbor who was friendly but not a trusted family friend] asked you if he could give you a ride home, what would you do?” I mean, obviously we don’t want to teach kids to be paranoid, but those are the situations that they need the most coaching on, IMHO, because they’re more vulnerable. (Apparently at age 7 I refused a ride home from a family friend, who then excitedly called my parents, pleased as punch that I’d stuck to their script. Ha!)
My heart was pounding reading this. It’s my worst nightmare to have someone take one of my kids.
One thing my son’s karate teacher taught children in a “stranger danger” class is what a “bad guy” looks like. He points out that in the movies, the person meaning someone harm always look like a bad guy. He went on to tell the children that while most people are good, that one bad person will probably just look normal.
He also taught the children if someone actually grabs them, they are to yell, “STRANGER! STRANGER! DON’T TOUCH ME THERE!” In all honesty, I have witnessed children being carted off in a toy store screaming. And every time I stop to watch and listen for that child to refer to the adult as “mommy or daddy.” If a child were yelling “Stranger stranger! Don’t touch me there!” all heads would turn.
Thank you for telling Erin’s story. You will have saved many more lives.
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