Amy Vandegrift knows the drill: If a stranger rides up in a car beckoning to her outside her suburban Philadelphia home, she's to make a beeline in the opposite direction. "You scream and get your friends to call 911,'' says the 11-year-old.
Amy has been drilled in the lessons of a postmodern childhood, where kids are taught that smiling strangers should be considered cunning and dangerous.
A spate of kidnappings the most recent an abduction and slaying of a 6-year-old St. Louis girl last Thursday has made it an unsettling summer for parents across the nation.
But despite the vivid evidence, kidnapping is not on the rise. Indeed, emphasize law enforcement authorities, such violent cases are decreasing and remarkably rare, in part because children like Amy are more street-smart than ever.
For the past 20 years, kids have been coached at home, at school, and through national safety programs to ward off threats.
The FBI estimates that of the 3,000 to 5,000 abductions each year by "nonfamily members,'' only 200 to 300 cases are considered the most serious, involving murder or ransom. FBI statistics show by comparison, that 150,000 attempted abductions fail each year.
"Are kids better prepared, more aware, and more alert today than they've ever been? The answer is yes," says Ernie Allen, president of the non-profit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "But it is unfortunate that some kids are and some aren't."
Two recent cases show how far the nation has come in educating children about how to ward off danger, but also are reminders of the challenges that remain.
Page 1 of 4