By Feona Sharhran Huff
Crown Heights resident and day care provider Dorice Mata got the scare of her life a little less than two months ago when her 13-year-old daughter, Crystal, approached her gate accompanied by an adult male. According to the man – who claimed to be an off-duty undercover cop that lived across the street from the school – he came to Crystal’s aid after seeing her in tears. Crystal confirmed it, saying that some girls had just robbed her of candy she was selling for a school fund-raiser.
When Mata questioned why the man hadn’t called for police backup at the crime scene, he didn’t have an acceptable answer. So, Mata decided to call the police.
“He then said that the police were probably looking for him and that he was going to head back where he’d just come from,” Mata recalls. “But instead of making a left turn when he reached Albany Street, he made a right.”
Mata had initially felt that his story didn’t gel, but the man’s sudden disappearing act confirmed that something was wrong. On top of that, Mata said he never showed her an official NYPD shield with a badge number and he didn’t have a walkie-talkie on hand – only handcuffs and some type of New York departmental identification.
However, it was her next move that proved to be most valuable. Mata turned to the Internet and logged onto www.familywatchdog.us – a free site that offers information on registered sex offenders in your area when you do a search by a person’s name or location. Mata entered the name of a street near Crystal’s junior high school. When the map popped up, she began browsing through pictures of convicted pedophiles. Then she saw his face. The man who had just stood before her was a convicted sex offender charged with rape. “I got delirious,” Mata vividly remembers.
Mata continued looking at photos, only to discover that another rapist lived in the same building as this man. Plus, to her alarm, she found that Brooklyn communities such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights were home to hundreds of registered sex offenders. Some even live in the same buildings as her relatives.
That same evening, Mata sat down with all of her children to discuss what to do if an adult ever approaches them, especially someone who professes to be a police officer.
According to www.familywatchdog.us, whose motto is “Awareness is the best defense,” Mata handled things accordingly. In addition to its obvious offerings, the site provides tips to help you keep your kids safe, statistics and testimonials. Plus, when you sign up, you can receive e-mail alerts as to when sex offenders become your neighbors, when they leave your neighborhood, or when a particular sex offender changes residency.
The power to effectively protect your children is always in your court. Here are eight things you can do:
1. Communicate regularly. Pamela Y. Burns has an open dialogue policy with her three children, ages six to 17. “My husband and I always want to hear what our kids have to say,” she says. If your children attend a day care or are ever with a baby-sitter, be sure to ask your children what happened while in the person’s care, and other probing questions. Let them know that you will never get mad at what they tell you. Remind them that you’re asking them to be open and honest with you because it’s your job to keep them safe.
2. Teach your children pertinent personal information. Lorrie Ayers, a parent coordinator at Dr. Peter Ray P.S. 305 in Bed-Stuy, says it’s imperative that your children know their first and last name, your full name and their telephone number, as well as home address and the cross streets. She says empowering them with this knowledge greatly helps the police when trying to locate you.
3. Enforce the “buddy system.” Remind your children that as much as is possible they should travel with at least one friend when going somewhere – whether it’s to the park, the arcade, shopping or taking an extended walk. There is power in numbers and if a situation arises, there is someone else with them to call for help.
4. Establish check-in points. Doing so gives you a piece of mind as to the whereabouts of your children throughout the day, especially since school is no longer in session. Burns requires her middle child, 13-year-old Dejonae, to call her when she leaves out the house and returns. Be sure to supply your children with quarters to make routine calls or depending on their age and responsibility level, purchase them an “emergency only” cell phone. When Salaam Davis is out with his 11-year-old daughter Shani and six-year-old son Kedar, he always tells them to stay close by his side, especially when they are in crowded areas such as department stores. His rationale: “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.”
5. Teach them what to do if they face an attempted abduction. Ayers says if someone ever tries to kidnap your children, they should scream: “This is not my father or mother and they are trying to take me.” Being specific in their cry for help alerts people on the street that this is a serious matter and not a child just playing around, explains Ayers.
6. Tell them what to do when lost or separated from an adult. Chantal L. Collins tells her eldest child, nine-year-old Neah, to find a woman with children if she doesn’t see the police, and tell her she is lost. Collins also points out landmarks or particular spots to return to when they are out. Ayers adds that when it comes to being separated from you on a bus or train, the following rules apply. When on the train: Tell them to get off at the next stop and wait at the token booth. They need to alert the clerk that they were separated. This is where you or another adult should look for them. On the bus: Tell them to stay on and notify the driver, at which point he or she can then call in to the base via radio.
7. Remind your children that adults don’t need help with directions or finding a lost pet. Mata, Burns, Collins, Davis and Ayers are all aware of the “I need help” scam that predators oftentimes try to run on children to lure them into their cars, then quickly snatch them. That’s why they implore their own children and insist that you tell yours to never approach an adult’s car for any reason. “Kids like to be helpful,” Ayers says. “Predators depend on them to be helpful.” Mata tells her children that if they are ever faced with being called to a car, they should run into the nearest store and tell the clerk what’s going on.
8. Keep their records current and readily available. Should the police need a recent photo of your children as well as their present height, weight, hair and eye color, ethnicity, skin complexion, and visible markings to begin their search, you need to have all of this information up-to-date and in a location that’s easy to retrieve. You can either type this information up yourself and store it in a folder or purchase an ID kit like the one offered through www.AMBERAlert.com. Check with your local police precinct to see if they offer any child ID programs, in which case you can register your children’s information with them and they provide ID cards.
For more tips and resources to empower you and your children on keeping them safe, log onto the following Web sites:
National Sex Offender Public Registry
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Department of Justice (OJJDP Publications-Child Protection)
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
NCMEC’s Web site to teach children about dangers on the Internet.
McGruff the Crime Dog
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Against Children Program Web page