Monday, April 19, 2004

Child luring cases on rise


Or are they just reported more?

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The reports strike fear through the hearts of police and parents alike: Someone cruising neighborhoods trying to lure children into a car.

It may seem there are daily media reports of children being enticed by adults, but the last local case involving a child abduction was in November 2001. In that case, a mother armed with a gun took her son from his foster parents at an elementary school in Clifton. On Sunday, Cincinnati police were searching for a man who tried to abduct a girl off the sidewalk in the 100 block of E. Galbraith Road in Hartwell. The girl was not harmed, and the man fled on foot. He was described as white, in his 40s, 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-9, with a thin build and sandy blond hair, police said.

Reports of adults trying to lure children have increased in some Greater Cincinnati communities, but authorities say that's likely because kids are smarter, parents are more likely to report as a potential crime what may be an innocent request for directions, intense media coverage and a push nationally to publicly identify and track convicted sexual predators.

And when a stranger kidnapping does happen, such as the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart, 14, from her Utah home, the story plays repeatedly on national news shows, heightens awareness and fear among parents, experts say.

"Part of it is the kids know what to do when this happens," says Cleves Police Lt. Harry Arnold. "Through the media, people are becoming more aware of what they should do and, as a result, we are getting more calls on things we weren't getting calls on before. Everything, but certainly child enticement."

Frightening but rare

Stranger abductions remain rare in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 800,000 children are reported missing each year, but the majority are taken by a non-custodial parent, are abandoned or have run away from home.

"Abductions by strangers that result in terrible things happening to the child ... are every parent's nightmare," said Melissa Sickmund, a senior research associate with the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. "So a lot of people over the years have been really trying to get the world to realize that the whole emphasis on stranger danger may do a disservice to kids. At the same time, you don't want kids to forget that. There is a weird tension there."

However, she adds: "I would much rather have the cops find out it was a false alarm than the other way around."

Under Ohio law, child enticement is a misdemeanor and is defined as when an adult tries to lure any child under the age of 14.

In Anderson Township there have been five reported child enticements so far this year. In all of 2003, there was just one such report.

Reports also are up in Clermont County's Miami Township, which has had five cases so far this year, said Miami Township Police Detective Nick Collier.

In Cleves in February, police arrested a 48-year-old College Hill man after two teenage girls accused him of trying to get them inside his truck "to take a ride."

The girls, ages 16 and 17, ran into a house, locked the door and called police, which is exactly how they should have responded, police say. On March 26, the man was ruled incompetent to stand trial and was ordered into treatment at the Summit Behavioral Healthcare Center.

Nationally, there is an increase in the reporting of child enticements and abductions, says Bob O'Brien, deputy director of the Missing Children's Division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va.

O'Brien, a retired 33-year FBI agent, links the increase in reporting to a brighter spotlight on abducted children and the Amber Alertsystem, which triggers a statewide emergency broadcast. Authorities then send a description of the child, the possible abductor and other identifying information to television and radio stations. The same information goes up on electronic traffic signs, on Web sites and across fax machines.

The program was named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who disappeared from outside her Texas home in 1996 while riding her bike. Her body was found four days later. No one has been arrested.

When an Amber Alert is issued, "There is more attention focused on the problem of the abduction and disappearance of children," O'Brien said. "The increased attention from the public draws the attention to the public being the tool to reduce this crime problem.

"People should not be shy at all to report. They shouldn't think they will be bothering someone," he said.

Local cases

In Anderson Township, deputies haven't made any arrests in the reported cases and have various suspect descriptions. In the first two cases, the description was similar but not exact, Barnett said. In the last two cases, the suspect descriptions didn't match and didn't match the previous two, either.

In Miami Township, police have been looking into five reported child enticements this year, including four from the same child in the same neighborhood.

Police identified a suspect last week but, before they could interview him, he died.

Elsewhere in Clermont County, two child enticements were reported to the sheriff's office this year, one in near Bethel on Feb. 19 and a second in Ohio Township on March 13. Further details on those cases weren't available. In all of last year, four cases of child enticement were reported to the Clermont County Sheriff's Office, which covers 10 townships.

In Anderson, increased community education and sheriff's patrols focusing on kids and public places where they are began before the reported abductions began.

Sheriff's deputies also are putting on safety classes for parents and children.

Parents should make sure their children know what to do if approached by a stranger, said Anderson father Brent Luddeke.

He helped to start the sheriff's safety talk at the Y after watching a TV news report earlier this year on a Florida teenage girl who was abducted and killed.

"I thought, 'This is going to happen in anyone's neighborhood, even mine,' and then, wham, it did," said Luddeke, 42. "We are all talking to our kids more. We want to make sure our kids are aware of their surroundings at all times and know how to react.

"It's sad, but times have changed and it's been brought to our attention more because of the media," he said. "There probably were these problems 10, 20 years ago, but I don't think it was reported as it is today."

Safety tips

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office offers these tips for parents to go over with their children so they know how to try to ward off an attempted abduction:

•  Children should be aware of their surroundings at all times and know where to go for help (a neighbor's house, a store, etc.)

•  Children should always play in groups, never alone, unsupervised

•  Parents should know where their children are at all times

•  Children should be wary of adults asking for directions or help. Adults usually only ask other adults, not children, for help. And children should never go anywhere with a stranger.

•  If someone tries to abduct your child, he should yell "Fire!" instead of "Help!" which is overused and less likely to bring assistance.

•  Teach your child to remember the acronym S.K.Y. if someone tries to snatch them: Scream, Kick, Yell.

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E-mail jedwards@enquirer.com




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