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.
Beginning when your child is a toddler, you should talk about the possibility of getting lost. (See our age-by-age guide on the third page.) The most important thing is to have a plan, and emphasize to children to follow it in the event they get separated: At the beach, for example, tell your kid to find a lifeguard, then stay put. "You'd be amazed at how far kids can go looking for their parents," says lifeguard Tom Gill, deputy chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service, which reunited 1,200 lost children with their families last summer. "At the beach, once they start going one way, they tend to keep going. We had one 5-year-old walk 5 miles."
To impress the point that you would never leave her, remind your child you'd never go away from where you are without her -- so she shouldn't try looking for you. You may even want to instruct a toddler to sit on the floor or the ground if she can't find you and yell your name from there. Tell bigger kids they can be no more than "three giant steps" away from you, or ask them to stay where they can see you.
Of course, some kids are "runners," and they won't realize you're not with them -- until they're nowhere near you. Either way, tell your child that if you don't respond when she yells, rather than looking for a store clerk or a security guard, she should stay put and ask the first "mommy" with a child she sees to help her. Why a mom? Women with kids are statistically less likely to be predators and more likely to stay with your child until she finds you. "Uniforms can be confusing for young children," explains Pattie Fitzgerald, a Los Angeles consultant who teaches safety to parents and children. "Some security guards are safe; others, who knows? When children are lost, you want to give them the least-risky choice." Once children are elementary-school age, experts say, they can identify an employee. "You can tell older kids to look for a person behind a cash register," says Fitzgerald. "Most employees in major stores are trained to know what to do."
To help the lesson stick, role-play the next time you're out together. "Have your child actually ask a store clerk or a woman with kids for help," says Nancy A. McBride, executive director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "It helps to make these situations you've talked about real for your child, so when they do lose you, they know what to do and they don't panic."
In crowded venues such as theme parks and outdoor festivals, or in a big store, it's always best to have young children secured. "Right from the beginning, teach your child that if they're in a public place, they can choose: Ride buckled in the stroller or hold your hand," says counselor Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids.
Still, if you know you have a child who likes to bolt, a safety harness or a leash can help keep him from dashing into traffic or getting lost in a crowd, despite the controversy leashes tend to ignite. "They're a great way to keep children safe because they actually give them more freedom," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "They have more room to stretch and explore, their hands are free, and if you have multiple children it makes it easier to corral them."
... to a theme park, an airport, a mall, or any other crowded destination where you and your child could get separated.
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 "Your Lost-Child Tool Kit," on the next page) 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.
4 YEARS AND UNDER
8 YEARS AND UP
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. For details, go to missingkids.com/childID
Temporary Tattoo Write your cell number on one of these waterproof tattoos and paste it to your child's arm. $21 for 18 write-on tattoos; safetytat.com
ID Bracelet Customize these bright disposable bracelets with your cell number and allergy/medical information. $10 for ten bracelets; mypreciouskid.com
BuddyTag This bracelet has a GPS tracker; a phone app tells you his whereabouts and alerts you if he goes more than a specified distance away. $40; mybuddytag.com
These true tales will give you chills.
Missing from men's room
Jennifer Slater, of Kennesaw, Georgia, waited outside the door while her 5-year-old son, David, used the men's room at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. After a few minutes, she poked her head in and called for him. Silence. She asked an exiting gentleman to check, and he told her there was no child inside. "By this time I was in full-out panic," Slater recalls. She ran back to the gate, grabbed her brother-in-law, and sent him in. To her relief, he came out with Slater's son. "It turns out the bathrooms at O'Hare have two entrances, which are accessible from two different hallways," Slater says. "My son had gone out the other door, and that's where my brother-in-law found him."The takeaway: Some situations are simply hard to predict. But if you have a son who's reluctant to accompany you into a women's room, try seeking a family restroom you can use together.
Didn't get on the subway
Vanessa Wauchope was using public transit to bring home two children she babysat in New York City. As she shuffled with the crowd onto the subway, the doors closed before the 7-year-old could squeeze in. "I turned around to see his big eyes looking at me on the other side of the glass," she recalls. Wauchope knew the family plan, which was to stay where you are if you get lost. She immediately got off with the other child at the next stop, ran and hopped onto the first train back. "When we got there, we raced down the platform, yelling his name," she says. "Sure enough, there he was, sitting and calmly waiting right where we left him."The takeaway: In crowded situations, keep kids in front of you (literally) at all times, and remind them to stay put if they become separated from you.
Wandered from home
Alice-Ann Menjivar and her 2-year-old daughter, Susana, often walked to the grocery store a few blocks away in their Washington, D.C., suburb. One day while the family hosted a backyard cookout, they realized Susana was missing. "We looked all over the house and she wasn't there, then we finally searched the neighborhood," says Menjivar. "Three doors down around the corner, we found her pushing her stroller. She said she was taking her baby to Safeway."The takeaway: Even with a house full of people, a small child can wander off unnoticed. Make sure you delegate at least one adult to keep track of the kids.