Two weeks after two reported child-luring incidents near Westfield elementary schools, the Goddard School in Fanwood hosted a seminar for parents on how to keep their children safer. Alan Robinson, a former Florida police officer and a member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, outlined tips and techniques in a workshop that attracted close to 30 parents from Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Westfield and other area towns.
"It was great," Goddard director Tricia Ferrara said. "It was informative and [Robinson] gave great tips. We're fortunate we were able to provide this service for parents."
Robinson, who said he has worked more than 30 years in law enforcement, anchored his presentation with chilling facts and statistics. He said that 705 children were abducted through online solicitation, and that 80 percent of child abductions occur within a quarter mile of the victims' front door. He used examples from cases he worked and anecdotes about his own life to show the predatory mindset of pedophiles.
"Child molesters always make it a game," he said. "If a child can be confused, he can be exploited."
The seminar covered a wide variety of topics, including an overview of the types of child molesters, what parents should and shouldn't do when they discover their child missing in a public place, internet safety and some teaching techniques parents can use to keep their children safe. The two greatest weapons in a child's arsenal, Robinson said, are communication and self-esteem. A child has to know she can tell her parents anything, and she has to know that "your body is yours and nobody has a right to touch you in the bathing suit part of your body."
The seminar comes in the weeks following two apparent child luring cases in Westfield: one near Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, in which a masked man allegedly asked two students to get into his car, and another near Franklin Elementary School, in which a driver reportedly attempted to lure a child into his car. Westfield police arrested a man in connection with the Wilson case.
The two Westfield cases have caused a growing wave of concern among parents in the area, with emails being exchanged in multiple towns with a picture of the Wilson suspect and a picture of a man one mother says is trying to lure children in Scotch Plains. Scotch Plains police say they are not actively investigating
This past weekend, there was a child abduction scare in Cranford, and on Monday a 20-year-old woman was reportedly kidnapped and sexually assaulted while walking in Westfield.
Though parents and children are up against true predators who expend significant energy on the best methods of luring children, Robinson said, they are not helpless. Likening child molesters to lions that pick off the weak members of a herd, Robinson outlined three lessons parents can teach their children as early as kindergarten.
The first is to use the buddy system. Predators prey on lone children, Robinson said, so children should never go anywhere without a friend or a sibling. The second is what Robinson called, "Check first." Children should learn to say, "I have to check first with my parents" – or the person in charge – "before getting into a car, even with someone I know, or accepting money or gifts." The third method Robinson called "No-Go-Tell:" If a child feels frightened or threatened, he or she should shout, "No!" as loud as possible, then go and tell someone he trusts.
These techniques are part of an "age-skill matrix" that matches typical children's development with what they should know, such as their names, their parents' names, their full addresses and the state in which they live. Robinson also recommended that parents make an ID card for their children to be kept in the home and changed every six months, and to have their children make dental impressions on a piece of Styrofoam.
In Union County, the sheriff's office offers a child fingerprinting service and issues identification cards to children. Sheriff Ralph Froelich, in an interview with Patch, said the program serves as a vital way to have material available to law enforcement in case a child goes missing.
He added that telling a child to never talk to strangers is bad advice, because it frightens children. They are also more inclined to think of ugly, scary strangers, he said, when the average child molester is just that: average. Most are soft-spoken and "act more like Mr. Rogers," and use lures and tricks in order to gain a child's trust to better exploit her.
Robinson offered similar advice: "You have to teach [children] how to handle situations, not individuals," he said.