Sandra Ferguson, a teacher’s aide in Antioch, California, was on her way to work when she saw a terrified student sitting in a car with a stranger. She could have minded her business and kept driving but decided to step in instead.
Thank goodness she did too, because her quick thinking prevented a parent’s worst nightmare from coming true.
The teacher’s aide was headed to her job at a local elementary school when she saw an 11-year-old student she recognized sitting in a vehicle with a man she definitely didn’t recognize. The girl, Ferguson said, looked scared, and that was when she sensed something was wrong.
Something was wrong. The man, 51-year-old Santiago Salazar, had snatched the girl while she was on her way to school, luring her toward the car and then grabbing her wrist to drag her inside. Ferguson asked the girl if Santiago was her father, to which the girl responded no. She said the man was a friend, but still, something didn’t feel quite right to Ferguson.
So Ferguson decided to take action. She blocked the man’s vehicle with her car, called the cops and told the girl to get out. Luckily the student was unharmed, and Salazar was arrested and charged with kidnapping.
It’s good that Ferguson trusted her instincts too. The man definitely wasn’t a friend, and it turns out he wasn’t even known to the little girl. Ferguson’s brave actions that day could have prevented something truly awful from happening. Non-family abductions — where a stranger snatches a child — are incredibly rare and make up only 1 percent of abductions, but they are also the most deadly. The Department of Justice notes that these kidnappings are more likely to result in a child’s extended or permanent disappearance or death.
We have a tendency to panic when it comes to the idea of kids around strangers, perhaps because the “what ifs” are too terrible to imagine. Still, it’s important to remember that these types of abductions are extremely rare and to approach how you teach your children about strangers and safety in a common-sense, level-headed way that sticks with them rather than terrifies them.
So how do we do that? Experts say that an ounce of prevention is, as always, worth a pound of cure.
First, talk with your child about what is appropriate stranger talk and what isn’t. It’s fine to be friendly, and there’s no need to run screaming from every stranger on the street, but there are some huge red flags that kids need to be aware of at any age:
1. Never go in or near a stranger’s car
This is absolutely imperative; teach your child to accept rides only from pre-approved drivers and to never actually get inside a stranger’s car. Once that happens, unless there is a Sandra Ferguson around, your child could be in real danger.
2. Stay with a buddy, and don’t wander off
Tell your kids to stick to a group like glue. If they’re on a field trip, stay near the teacher. If they’re walking home from school, they should be with a buddy. Abductors can only be successful if they separate their victim from safety.
3. Adults don’t need your help
This falls under common sense. Kids naturally want to be helpful, but it’s important to teach the difference between helping around the house and helping a stranger find a lost pet or open their car door.
4. Know the code
A code word can be useful, but only if you practice and tell the other adults in your child’s life to practice too. Teach everyone who might pick your child up from school or hang out with them regularly your code word, and remind kids to not go with people who don’t know it.
But what if something bad does happen? We tend to gloss over the proactive part of the conversation — what your child should do if someone tries to take them. According to police, these two techniques can be effective in the event of an actual kidnapping:
1. “The Velcro technique”
Teach your kid how to grab on to something and hold on for dear life — a signpost, a car door, even another passing adult’s hand. Abductors rely on speed and shock to get the job done; if your child can slow them down to raise the alarm, they may even give up.
Teaching kids to yell as loud as they can is helpful, but it can’t just be wordless screaming, because people might assume it’s a tantrum. Instead, yell phrases like “you aren’t my mommy/daddy” or “help, call the police.”
Approach talks like these as safety chats. The world is not a dark place where kidnappers lurk on every corner, but it’s smart to know what to do if you’re in danger. The same goes for any kind of safety, like swimming or car safety.