Whenever I took my 3-year-old son, Ben, to the public library, he loved walking up and down the aisles, examining all the books while I picked out a few for us to read. But one day, he wandered away and didn't come back. I rounded a corner prepared to remind him to stay where I could see him, but...he was gone. He wasn't at the coloring table he loved. He wasn't at the computers. There was no sign of him.
"Ben!" I called. Nothing. Panic set in as I sprinted down aisles and checked the bathroom.
Just then, a woman came through the double doors leading outside, holding Ben firmly by the hand. "I just found this boy about to walk into the parking lot," she said, breathless. I wrapped Ben in a bear hug, and as my heart started to beat again my mind raced with awful what-ifs.
Anyone who's been a parent long enough has experienced the terror of not being able to find her child, whether at an amusement park, a parade, in a store, or wherever else kids can get lost -- which is anywhere, sometimes even right in your own neighborhood. In a 2005 report, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that some 340,500 children a year become temporarily separated from a parent or a caregiver for at least an hour. And those numbers reflect only reported incidents, and not the thousands of times parents like me have lost a child for a few excruciating minutes.
The good news? Most children are found quickly, often even before they realize a parent is looking for them. And possibly every parent's worst fear -- abduction by a stranger or an acquaintance, where the child is taken far from home and harmed or held with the intent to keep her permanently -- is very rare: Only 115 meet the criteria for this type of kidnapping a year.
Still, with almost 1,000 children a day getting lost for 60 minutes or more, it's smart to be prepared if it happens. We asked top safety experts for advice on how to keep your little Houdini safely by your side.
Whether it's to a theme park, an airport, a mall, or another other crowded destination where you and your child could get separated, here's what to do before you go:
Put your number in writing. Even if your child can recite your cell-phone number, it's a good idea to write it where he can keep it in case he forgets. Special tattoos and bracelets are available (see below) or you can make your own with a bracelet or a dog tag.
"I've seen parents write their number on the tongue of a shoe, a piece of paper, or on a cheap lanyard kids can tuck into their shirt," says John W. Fussner, a theme-park security consultant who has worked with dozens of amusement parks. "It's a big help for us when we have a lost kid."
Go bold. Dress your child in an easy-to-spot color like orange or neon green, and consider vibrant hats and bows, since they're easier to see in a crowd. A bright color may also detract predators, since they tend to avoid kids who draw attention, Fitzgerald says. Don't forget to mark your stroller, especially if you're using a theme park-provided one that looks like dozens of others. The last thing you want is for someone to accidentally walk off with it while your child is sleeping inside (it happens!). Tie on a big flower or bow that will make your stroller easily identifiable as your own.
Take a "before" shot. Snap a picture of your little one with your phone before you head out. Many theme parks have the technology to send a digital picture to every security officer's phone. And it will help if you can't remember exactly what your child was wearing. "In a moment of panic, parents always forget," says Fussner, the theme-park consultant.
"They confuse outfits or don't know what color the shirt was. At one park, a lady gave us a fairly good description of her lost daughter, who she said was wearing certain clothes and had long blond hair. But when we finally found the child, she had short hair. The mother had forgotten she had taken her to get a haircut right before the trip."
As difficult as it may be, try not to panic, and follow these steps.
Do a quick, cursory search. Your child probably isn't far. Stay still for a moment and think about what might have captured her attention (the iPad display? the game with the giant stuffed bears?), and quickly check that area. (If you're near a swimming pool, a fountain, or any other body of water, always check there first.) While you may have heard that it's unwise to call your child's name — that a nearby predator could use it to his advantage — most experts say it's okay, and attracting attention can actually be a deterrent to predators.
"Your child is probably within earshot, so it makes sense to call out her name, especially since the chances of abduction are very, very slim," says Robin Sax, a former deputy district attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted crimes against children.
Get help fast. If you don't find your child after a minute or two, seek the closest employee and explain the situation. Do it quickly even if it means you have to leave the immediate area, or send someone else if you can. Just about every large retailer has a missing-child action plan (often called a Code Adam program) that instantly mobilizes employees to guard exit doors and start combing bathrooms, fitting rooms, and aisles, says Rich Mellor, consultant/advisor for loss prevention at National Retail Federation.
"During a Code Adam, no child leaves the building without someone from the store questioning the adult and the child," Mellor says.
Call the police. If you haven't found your child after five to ten minutes, get the police involved, safety experts say. A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the first three hours are the most critical to locate a missing child. "Give them a good description of where you last saw your child and in what kind of clothes. Stay calm and remember that calling the police does not mean the worst has happened," says psychologist Rebecca Bailey, Ph.D., coauthor of Safe Kids, Smart Parents."Most parents vacillate from being overly concerned to thinking it will never happen to them."
However, don't wait if your instincts tell you to call. "If you truly think your child was abducted, time is of the essence," says Sax, noting that most abductions are committed by someone the child knows." It doesn't matter whether or not you are in a contentious divorce with custody issues. If your gut says call, then call. Don't talk yourself out of calling the police." Also consider soliciting a family member for support and help, especially if you have another child with you. It's scary to think about your child getting lost, but knowing what to do — staying calm and seeking help fast — can spare you panic you're unlikely to ever forget.
These products, from tattoos to GPS trackers, may help you find your child more quickly:
Child ID Kit
Assemble one yourself with your child's photo, height, weight, fingerprints, and other identifying info to help law enforcement if ever necessary. Get step-by-step instructions and a printable template here.
Write your cell number on one of these waterproof tattoos and paste it to your child's arm. Get more details at safetytat.com