What would your child do?: The lure of a stranger

An Eyewitness News employee posed as a stranger to see how children would react when approached.
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If a stranger drove up to your home while your children were playing outside, what would your child do?

In Speedway, the Dalcorobbo children love kicking the ball around. On the south side of Indianapolis, the Valencia kids play football. Their moms are keeping a secret from their kids. They know their children will soon get a visit from a stranger.  Only this stranger is really a Channel 13 employee, driving a car with tiny cameras inside.  What's about to happen is an experiment to learn how kids would react if confronted by a stranger.

"Would you guys be willing to help me look for my dog?" the WTHR employee asked a group of children as he drove through a Speedway neighborhood.

The kids seemed suspicious initially but then became interested in helping.  After a little coaxing, the kids agreed to bike ahead of the stranger in search of a lost dog.  Their mom was stunned to watch it all.

"I didn't feel like they'd actually take him.  I thought Nolan would say, 'Let's get in the house'," said Melissa Dalcorobbo.

On the south side, the ruse was similar, but the reaction from the children was much different.  When the same WTHR employee approached a group of children in his car, the boys stuck together and walked away from the strange vehicle.

"I guess someone's trained them pretty well about stranger danger and to stay away from them," said the boys' mother, Charis Gordon.

Police urge kids to react even stronger.

"If someone approaches you, you're uncomfortable, get away.  Leave me.  Help me.  Somebody help me.  Yell at the top of your lungs.  Attract attention," said IMPD detective Chester Price.  "Stranger abductions, thankfully, are a rarity, even across the United States.  What we do have are a number of attempt abductions or luring attempts. They may try and get the child to come over to their car.  They use the old lines, 'Help me find my puppy,' 'Your mom sent me to get you, there's been an accident and she wants me to take her to you right away'."

"Just saying something, come to my car is not a crime.  Even if it's a six-year-old child. It's not illegal to say 'come to my car.'   It becomes illegal when they physically touch them," said Price.  

Price teaches Indianapolis Public Schools, Perry Township and Pike Township school districts about attempted abductions and encourages parents to talk with their children about strangers.

"If it's not your mom, or your grandma, or someone you know, your teacher, then don't talk to them.  Don't go to them.  Walk away from them. If you're walking, walk with your head up.  Look around.  Pay attention to what's going on around you.  If you see someone, or something that doesn't look right, go back home," said Price. "If someone approaches you and starts talking to you and they're saying things that aren't necessarily appropriate, or there just talking to you and you don't like it, stop turn around and go the opposite direction.  It's a lot harder for a person to turn a car around than it is for you to just turn around and walk.  Walk away.

"Parents need to walk their children to the school bus stop and stay with them until they get on the bus. I cannot tell you how many times we've had these attempts with kids, 7-8 years old, who were standing alone at the bus stop, or walking to the corner by themselves," Price added.

Role playing is an effective way to teach your children how to react.  Experts encourage parents to practice with their children what to do if a stranger approaches them.

"I'll do (role playing) with puppets, I'll do them with clay, I'll do them with figurines, I'll do them with bodies.  Whatever the kid needs.  I'll say, 'I've got a great idea.  How about I be the bad guy and you be the good guy.  And let's practice and see what we can do to be safe'," said Amy Miller, a Marriage and Family Therapist with the Christian Theological Seminary.   "They can scream and say no.  They can make all the noise in the world. Because that's what we want them to do if someone is hurting them, or touching them in their bathing suit area, or potentially abducting them.  Give your kid permission to yell and scream and say no if they're approached by a stranger.  In my personal case, saying 'no' got me in trouble as a kid."

When she was seven years old, Miller was abducted and assaulted by a man in a truck.

"No one had ever taught me there was people in the world...there were people that were bad.   Strangers are not always strange," said Miller. "The word stranger indicates that someone, in a child's mind, looks strange, acts strange, or feels creepy.  But, in reality, abductors or sexual molesters potentially already have that part figured out, so they're not going to look strange.  They're not going to present themselves as some kind of quack. They may show up nicely dressed, they may be attractive, they may have a beautiful smile."

Our experiment also allowed us to see what the children remember about our "stranger." Would they be a good witness if police became involved?

"What kind of hair did they have?  Did they have a hat on?  Or a hoodie?  What was their face like?  Remember their eyes?  Did they have hair on their face?  A mustache, a beard?" said Price.

Our Channel 13 employee had a tattoo, a blue shirt, red hat and beard and drove a white car.  Some kids were good witnesses.

"He had a beard.  He was wearing a red hat.  He had something on his hand.  He was in a white car," said 10-year-old Nolan Dalcorobbo.

But his twin sister couldn't remember everything.

"He had a blue hat on and a white car and a red shirt, I think," said Gianni Dalcorobbo.

One of the moms felt good about how her children performed in the experiment.

"I guess someone's trained them pretty well about stranger danger and to stay away from them," said Charis Gordon, whose son did exactly what he had been taught.

"A guy pulled up and asked for directions and I backed away," said 10-year-old Christian Valencia. "He was a stranger and I don't know him."

The other mom acknowledged more teaching needs to happen.

"It's disappointing to me, because I think what would have happened if this really were some random person who wanted to hurt my kids," said Dalcorobbo.  "They could have taken him around the corner and caught him and put them in the car and they're gone.  So, I think there's some things to work on as a family and stranger danger."

"We need to instill, as soon as possible, even if we don't start until they're 13, to let kids know the reality that there's people out there that hurt children," said Miller.  "One way to keep older children safe is to put rules and roles in place.  Rules are don't answer the door if you're home alone.  Don't give anybody your address that you don't know.  Don't share the location of your house like I did.  Girls need to know there's no modeling agency that hunts around the mall for them."

Miller says parents should look for certain behavioral changes that may indicate that children have become victimized by strangers. 

Symptoms of child abuse:

  1. Soiling themselves
  2. Wetting the bed
  3. Recurring nightmares
  4. Anxiety level high
  5. Poor school performance
  6. Socialization skills regress
  7. Changes in appetite
  8. Sleep patterns change

Police recommendations for children approached by strangers:

  1. Walk or run away
  2. Yell for help
  3. Attract attention

Questions to help your child become a good witness:

  1. What kind of hair did they have?
  2. Did they wear a hat or hoodie?
  3. Did they have hair on their face (mustache or beard)?
  4. Describe their eyes?
  5. Did they wear glasses?
  6. Did they have any unusual smells?
  7. Were their clothes clean or dirty?
  8. What kind of pants or shoes were they wearing?
  9. Describe their color from front to back
  10. Were the windows tinted?

Recommended Books

      "Who is a Stranger and What Should I Do?"
      Author: Linda Walvoord Girard

      "Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers" 
      Author: Stan and Jan Berenstain 

      "My Body Is Private"
      Author: Linda Walvoord Girard 

      "My Body Is Mine, My Feelings Are Mine, A Storybook About Body Safety for Young Children with an Adult Guidebook"
       Author: Susan L. Hoke

       "Feeling Safe" 
       Author: Autumn Grace and Maggie Gould 

       "Predators and Child Molesters: What Every Parent Needs to Know to Keep Kids Safe"
       Author: Robin Sax

       "The Safe Side - Stranger Safety: Hot Tips To Keep"
       Author: Angela Shelton 

       "I said NO! A kid-to-kid guide for keeping your privates private"
       Author: Kimberly King 

       "The Safe Zone:  A book teaching child abduction prevention rules"
        Authors: Marina Megale, Linda D. Meyer, John Walsh

A webpage for children: http://www.youthonline.ca/safety/stranger.shtml

A comprehensive website for parents and educators: http://www.yellodyno.com/