Fear has been spreading throughout the parenting community regarding the threat of child sex traffickers. Parents have shared stories on social media about strangers either stalking them in stores or physically trying to take their child from their arms. How real is this threat, and what can you do to protect your children?
Diandra Toyos shared her story on Facebook of being stalked at IKEA while shopping with her three young children and her mother.
"After a few minutes, I noticed a well dressed, middle-aged man circling the area, getting closer to me and the kids. At one point he came right up to me and the boys, and instinctively I put myself between he and my mobile son. I had a bad feeling. He continued to circle the area, staring at the kids. He occasionally picked something up, pretending to look at it but looking right over at us instead. My mom noticed as well and mentioned that we needed to keep an eye on him. We moved on… and so did he. Closely."
The man appeared to have an accomplice and the two men moved when and where the family moved and stopped at the displays the family stopped at. It spooked Toyos, who notified security of the situation. While Snopes has labeled this story as "unproven" it has parents scared, and hopefully being more diligent when out in public with their children.
Another story involved a little girl who kept following a mom and her daughter in a Target in Oklahoma, attempting to engage the daughter.
"There was this little girl that was following us, and she kept asking my daughter for candy," said Amanda Kalidy to AOL News. "I was asking her where her mom was."
Kalidy then noticed a man was near the girl and seemed to be coaching her. Before she could alert a manager, the duo vanished from the store.
"Human trafficking is a reality in Oklahoma," Michael Snowden, of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics Human Trafficking Division told AOL News. "We don't generally see people snatching children from their parents or women being abducted from a retail store of some sort," Snowden said. "Human trafficking is much more subtle than that."
While luring children into the world of human trafficking is something that experts say traffickers do over time, first gaining the child's trust, parents should still keep children close by when out. Attempted abductions have been caught on video and can happen in a split second.
While most children who enter the sex trade are between ages 12-14, and are runaways who have been victims of sexual abuse, any child is at risk. Ashton Kutcher recently gave a heartbreaking testimony regarding just how young these victims can be.
What can parents do to ensure that their children are kept safe from possible abductions?
1. Establish trust
Build a relationship of trust with your child so that she knows she can always turn to you, especially when someone is threatening her or the family.
2. Keep an eye on them
Don't leave your children unattended in public places - not even in a locked car. Also don't allow your children to go into a bathroom alone. If you are the father of a daughter, knock to see if the women's bathroom is empty and allow your child to go in if the room is empty. Stand outside the door until your child comes out. Same goes for moms of sons.
3. Warn your kids about suspicious behavior
Talk to your children about the ways untrustworthy adults or older children will act or what they will say to try to trick them. It isn't always "stranger danger" we need to worry about. Sometimes it is the people within our own circles that can't be trusted.
4. Show them how and when to say "no"
Teach your children that it's okay to say no to a hug request from someone and it's okay to be "rude" to any adult who makes them feel uncomfortable.
5. Keep lines of communication open
Teach your children when secrets are not okay to keep.
6. Be aware of potential predators in your neighborhood
Research any sexual predators who may be living in your area.
7. Keep the internet as safe as possible
Don't allow your child to be on the internet in their room or away from you. Keep the computer in a central location in the house. Use parental control apps and monitor your child's cell phone use. Teach your child how to be safe online and keep the Wi-Fi password a secret so they can't go online when you are unaware.
8. Keep track of them
Create a child ID kit and take it with you wherever you go. Install a GPS device on your child's phone or tablet, or purchase a GPS band for your child to wear.
9. Always be aware
Pay attention to your surroundings and if something or someone is making you uncomfortable, don't be afraid to alert security, store management, or the police.
10. Never trust someone out of guilt
Don't trust someone just because you feel bad not trusting them. Soccer coaches, doctors, and other people in seemingly "safe" professional roles have been found to be sexual abusers, and any of them can groom a child into becoming a sex slave. Don't allow your child to go on overnights with any adult. Always make sure you are in attendance with your child for overnight trips. If you can't be, ensure that another parent whom you know you can trust is able to attend.
Children are taught to respect adults and listen to authority figures. Unfortunately, this can have the negative effect of your child trusting someone that shouldn't be trusted. While it is rare that your small child will be kidnapped while you're out shopping, it is still important to be aware of your surroundings and teach your children to do the same.