In Melody's Own Words: "Stranger Danger" Hits Close To Home

The following is reprinted with the permission of Melody Townsel and presented as a reminder for parents to talk to their children about how to react when approached by strangers.1
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CRIMEWATCH! Today, Stranger Danger Hit Home!

by Melody Townsel. Originally posted on DailyKos on Wed Feb 20, 2008 at 02:59:39 PM EST.


Hello, all:

Today, my tiny family of two got an up-close-and-personal look at stranger danger -- and I can't help but think that our story is worth a reminder to all of you who are parents.

This morning, my daughter and I awoke in great moods, getting ourselves around and ready to cover the five miles between here and Reunion Arena to go and see Barack Obama. As we were preparing to leave, a friend called, and while I was on the phone, my eight-year-old, Sadie, went out to the sidewalk in front of our house to bounce her new yellow ball.

Five minutes. That's all the time that lapsed while I chatted briefly with a friend.

Five minutes.

:: ::

I could hear Sadie's ball bouncing as I wrapped up my call with my friend. As I was nearing the end of our conversation, Sadie came running in, saying, "Hey, Mom, I'm going to help this man go and find his dog."

It took me a second to disengage and hear what she was saying. "What?"

"This man out front is looking for his little dog named Charlie, and he said he needs me to help him."

Oh, no. No. HELL no. HELL NO!

"Sadie, lock the door behind you."

My friend, Jeanette, heard Sadie, and her mom-dar went off, too. "Go take care of this."

I asked Sadie to repeat her entire conversation with the man. Peeked around the edge of the curtain to see that the man was still there.

Five minutes or so went by before I gathered my courage and walked outside, ordering Sadie to stay put.

As I walked out, the man startled.

"Can I help you, sir? Is there something you need?"

He stammered a bit, then asked if I had seen a small, grey Yorkie.

"No. I haven't. Nor has my daughter."

He said OK, then walked rapidly off, disappearing into a multi-family housing unit about a block north of where we live.

No calling for his missing dog. No stopping. Just heading straight to the apartments up the road.

I instantly felt nauseous. Something WAS NOT RIGHT.

If the man was looking for his dog, why had he stayed on the sidewalk across the street, waiting for my daughter to return? Why wasn't he walking up and down the street, calling for his dog and enlisting the help of others?

I called a dear friend, Jason, who heads our local crimewatch, and he immediately headed over. He drove to the apartment house, found the man and called me back, saying that the man in question claimed he hadn't asked Sadie for her help.

Sadie instantly began crying, saying the man was lying and that he had told her she had to help.

Let me say here that Sadie is a smart, switched-on, astute kid, and she's no liar or drama queen. It was clear that she was telling the truth.

I immediately threw her into the car and we drove to a local police storefront office near our home, seeking out the help of a Dallas officer who is also a close family friend.

We told him our story, and he immediately called for a cruiser to come take a statement and start an investigation. Ninety minutes later, the police officer had taken his statement; told me she shares my suspicions about his actions and intentions this morning; and let me know that they had caught him in an apparent lie.

The man claimed, again, that he had not asked my daughter for her help -- and the police, too, pressed him on why, if he had not told her to come along, was he still waiting on the sidewalk for her return five minutes later? The man was unable to answer.

Let me be absolutely clear. This man was waiting. For Sadie. For five minutes. He was surprised when I came out instead. He couldn't leave fast enough.

In the process of their questioning, the man apparently told the police that he had been looking for his dog for a few days, and had just this morning posted fliers on several lightposts the next street over -- naming a couple of specific intersections where he had taped his notices.

The police were unable to find any of his Lost Dog notices, and no evidence at the intersections he mentioned that there had been any tape or glue on the lightposts.

They've left now, but their investigation continues. They plan additional patrols. They will be watching this man. Who lives just a block away.

By the time we were finally able to leave our house, largely to distract us both from the morning's events, we were too late for Barack Obama. We went from participating in history to filing a police report.

As I type this, I'm scared at how close Sadie may have come to something unspeakable. I'm angry that we lost a special opportunity to participate in the Obama rally. And I know that this fear we now share of the neighborhood around us won't be leaving us anytime soon.

After all of our talks about stranger danger and cutting off conversations with people you don't know, I'm abjectly horrified that my bright, beautiful daughter never questioned the man's story of a missing dog. She was happy, excited, the sun was shining, and she was simply coming in to let her mommy know that she was off on a dog hunt.

A missing dog. He spoke her language. It was clear that he had her at hello.

Thank god she came in first. Thank god she came in first. Thank god she came in first. Thank god she came in first. Thank god she came in first.

Use this story. Talk to your kids. Talk to them again. And again. And again.

As I learned this morning, you can never talk to them enough.

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The above was reprinted with the permission of Melody Townsel and presented as a reminder for parents to talk to their children about how to react when approached by strangers.2

We live in a beautiful world, but it is not without its dangers. Preparing our children -- and ourselves -- about how to deal with several key safety issues can make the difference between living in ignorance, living in fear and living in the relative security provided by open, honest and appropriate communication.

Be careful out there, but don't live in constant fear. Be aware, be prepared and teach your children as best you can.

And every so often, remember to stop and smell the roses on occasion.
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Footnotes
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  1. Who is a stranger? From the comments where Melody originally posted this piece on DailyKos, catleigh makes a very good point:
    One thing to remember with young kids is that

    you have to be sure they know what 'stranger' really means. My sister, who is a police officer, helped conduct a seminar/stranger-test operation last year. The kids' parents signed them up for it and one thing they found, especially in younger kids but true in all age groups, is that the kids didn't consider clean-cut, well-dressed people of their own ethnicity to be 'strangers.' They thought 'stranger' meant people who looked different, or were dressed in unusual clothes, or were homeless/dirty/ragged looking.

    The test part of the operation showed that over 85% of attempts to gain access to the kids were successful. The children approached cars, agreed to 'help' adults, and even gave total strangers access to their homes to use the phone or bathroom (my sister, a short stout woman was particularly successful in these tests). Most of the parents who participated were utterly horrified at how easy it was for total strangers to gain their kids' trust. You don't want the kids to live in fear, but at the same time you can't stress enough the rules about how to act with people they don't know or whom they know only slightly.

    Not all strangers are dangerous, but children are innocents and unable to reliably discern the difference. Some people suggested having a code-word that you could practice using, so that the child wouldn't go without anyone who didn't know it, and others stress the need that a child should ALWAYS check with the adult supervising them before going anywhere with anyone. As always, however, discussions must be age-appropriate -- some things are too complex for younger children to understand.

    If you have any questions or concerns about how to teach your children and what to teach them regarding strangers, you can always start by calling and talking to your local police station or inquiring about safety instruction and advice from the school or even try your child's pediatrician. Other suggestions and advice are welcome and should be placed in the comments section.

  2. Prior to receiving permission to reprint, this piece was posted on ePluribus Media in order to help bring attention to the situation.
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