Earlier this year, the frightening dangers posed by child predators made headlines once again when police in Kirkwood, Missouri, charged Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizzeria manager, with kidnapping and sexually assaulting two boys -- one of whom had been living with him for more than four years.
The case was a stark reminder that, despite all the attention that's been focused on the issue over the past several decades, crimes against children are still all too common.
"Kids are certainly safer today than they were a generation ago, but there's more we need to do," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in Alexandria, Virginia.
On the plus side, Allen cites an avalanche of federal, state, and local laws that have been enacted in recent years, making it harder for convicted sex offenders to hide from authorities. He says that all Americans, from parents to policymakers, have an increased awareness of the threat of child abduction and are familiar with ways to help kids be safe. "The result is that more missing kids come home safely today than at any other point in history," Allen says.
But challenges remain, such as fully funding and implementing existing programs and policies, as well as trying to fill in some of gaps in a national patchwork of laws. But even more important, they involve making sure that parents remain acutely aware of their role in keeping their own children safe.
"No laws or policies can take the place of education," says David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. He advises parents to have ongoing conversations with their children about the risks kids face and how to avoid them. On the following pages, we tell you everything you need to know to keep your child safe.