Several years ago, before a rash of abductions made the headlines, before widespread sexual abuse in the clergy became news and before Michael Jackson was acquitted, five women got together to brainstorm a way to help children protect themselves from abduction, abuse and exploitation.
Mothers Advocating Prevention (MAP) developed a safety education program based on information gathered primarily from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Over the past four years, trained educators have taken the interactive, age-appropriate presentations into classrooms in public schools across the Palos Verdes Peninsula, reaching thousands of children.
In 2002, at the request of Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles, MAP safety educators trained mothers from Los Angeles day schools and helped create materials appropriate to the Orthodox environment.
Susan DiLeo, who serves on the executive board at Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, is MAP's executive director. She talked with The Jewish Journal about how parents can help keep their kids safe over the summer, and all year long.
Jewish Journal: What is the basic message MAP teaches kids?
Susan DiLeo: We teach children to follow five specific, simple safety rules we call the ABCs of safety:
A -- Asking for help teaches them that if they get separated from a parent in public they need to know who 'safe helpers' are and how to find them. They need to find a cashier, law enforcement, or mom with kids.
B -- Bring a friend simply is the buddy system; a child or teen alone always is a more vulnerable target.
C -- 'Check first' teaches kids that they must let parents or guardians know where they are going and whenever there's a change in plans. This rule is especially important for situations when kids are not with their parents -- lessons, sports practice, parties, play-dates, etc.
D -- Do tell. If someone says or does something to a kid that makes them scared or uncomfortable, they need to tell a trusted adult right away. And finally,
E -- Explore the Internet safely. Many kids are more knowledgeable about computers than their parents. But household rules need to be followed about where they're allowed to go online.
We explain how following these rules help children avoid being tricked by someone who might try to lure them, and we discuss various tricks predators use.
JJ: What happened to 'Don't talk to strangers'?
SD: We don't recommend teaching 'Stranger Danger.' If a child is lost in public, their 'safe helper' most likely will be somebody they don't know. Children see their parents talking to strangers all the time, which leads to confusion. Ask a child what a stranger is to them, and you'll see how ambiguous the term is. Do they think the mail carrier is a stranger? My kids don't. Most importantly, sexually abused children usually are exploited by somebody they know, not by a stranger.
JJ: What should parents know about summer camp?
SD: The ABC rules apply whether at camp, school or out in public. But parents should check out camps and summer programs carefully. Ask the director about background checks on individuals working there; make sure there's adequate supervision and a proper camper/counselor ratio, especially with very young children. Inquire about all activities, field trips and transportation arrangements. I like to get recommendations from friends whose kids have already attended certain camps.
JJ: Some parents are uncomfortable talking about sexual abuse.
SD: Yes they are, but they don't need to go into great detail. First, parents should discuss with their kids who trusted adults are in their circle of family and friends. These are people who might pick the child up from school unexpectedly, or whom the child could go to with a problem. Children need to know that they can discuss anything with their parents. We tell kids that their private parts are just that -- private -- and if somebody touches them in any way that makes them uncomfortable, they should tell a parent or trusted adult immediately, especially if that person tells them to keep it a secret. That's a real red flag.
JJ: Parents tend to worry more about little kids, but aren't middle school kids at greater risk?
SD: Yes, once kids hit middle school, they generally have more freedom to be away from home without direct supervision. Being out independently is new and exciting, and it can lead to riskier behavior. This makes the safety rules even more critical. We hear in the news all the time about teens and young adults who go missing.
JJ: What about the Internet?
SD: This is a crucial part of our program and one that parents are very concerned about. We teach kids never to give out personal information, to send pictures of anyone, or to make plans to meet in person somebody they met online. We show upper-grade children a video that demonstrates how savvy, online predators can find a person with only the smallest bits of information. You'd be surprised how kids leave clues in chat rooms about where they live without even realizing it.
Susan DiLeo and Julie Brown are founding members of Mothers Advocating Prevention as well as certified Safety Educators. For more information, visit www.mapmoms.org. For a registry of convicted sex offenders, visit www.meganslaw.ca.gov, and for more safety tips visit www.missingkids.com.