A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail about a child supposedly being kidnapped in an upscale mall.
The e-mail, written by the child’s godmother, was a detailed account of her inaanak’s abduction that began when the little boy went into the men’s toilets. His mom stood by the exit waiting, until she realized it had been too long.
She shouted his name but received no reply, and so she asked the janitor to enter and look for her son. When the janitor came out empty-handed, panic set in. With the help of security, the mall was locked down.
Here is where things got fuzzy. In one version that I received, nobody could find the boy anywhere in the mall and the CCTV yielded negative results. So the godmother drove out to the nearest main road with public transport access and saw the child just in time before he was taken into a passenger jeepney.
For a moment, she almost didn’t recognize him because of his haircut and clothes, but a closer look revealed a haphazardly shaved head and the unmistakable look of fear on the child’s face, which confirmed that this was, indeed, the missing child.
How did this happen? The e-mail said that the child was supposedly drugged in the men’s toilet and carried out to the car park and into a van—where his hair was hurriedly shaved off and clothes quickly changed before being brought out for whatever their wicked intentions may have been.
In another version, the lockdown proved to be effective and the child was found abandoned in the mall car park, with his head shaved, heavily drugged and in different clothes.
The perpetrators were not caught in either version.
It was not long before I saw the story posted on practically everyone’s Facebook wall, generating hundreds of comments from terrified parents. But the mall operators issued an official statement and debunked the story as one big, malicious hoax.
The statement assured the public that no such incident has ever occurred in the mall, and that each toilet has a security guard posted at the door to serve as a deterrent for unwanted activities inside the restrooms. There are also CCTV cameras monitoring the entire mall, including the hallways outside the toilets, allowing security to see all people going in and out of them.
It also pointed out the obvious similarity of the story with that of an urban legend that supposedly happened in the United States in the 1990s—but which has long been debunked by authorities.
For several years, such stories circulated all over the US, with kidnappings occurring everywhere, from world-famous theme parks to giant shopping chains.
I, too, recalled reading a similar story in a blog some two years ago. The incident supposedly took place at a theme park in Hong Kong—but in this story, the parents never found their child. All they recovered were the old clothes and cut hair of the child, and a used pack of hair dye inside one of the stalls, which leads us back to the same modus operandi.
The story had a link to www.snopes.com, a website dedicated to shedding light on rumors, urban legends and all forms of misinformation. It ended with a request for people to stop and verify a story first before posting and forwarding it to their family and friends. Everyone has good intentions, of course, but sometimes good intentions are not enough.
The whole story may have just been a hoax, but it still serves as a good reminder to always be on our toes and never be too complacent about the safety of our children. With this in mind, here are some safety rules we can learn for ourselves, implement and teach the kids and their caregivers.
1.) Always be aware of your surroundings.
Watch out for strange behavior from suspicious characters. Use your instincts—if something doesn’t feel right, then get your child out of there. For instance, people with no kids hanging around a mall play area, or a stranger who seems to be following you no matter how much you try to shake him or her off.
However, nobody can use their instincts and observe their surroundings if they are too busy with their cell phones and other gadgets, which can also serve as magnets for hold-uppers and thieves. So, take off those earphones and leave them at home.
2.) Make sure your child knows your contact details such as your full name, address and phone number in case the child gets lost.
If the child is still too young, a calling card in his pocket may help security people contact you.
Back in the ’80s, when there were no cell phones yet, my good friend Pacholo got lost in the tiangge. His mother searched frantically for him. Little did she know that the young boy had approached a security guard, and after not being “claimed” for over an hour, was turned over to the police who drove him safely back home, since my friend was old enough to know his address.
Going with a stranger could have had dangerous consequences, but my friend’s angel must have been watching close by.
3.) Have a meeting place to go to, in case anyone gets lost.
Yes, I know everyone has a cell phone now, but phones run out of batteries and can get lost, so it’s always best to have an alternative scenario.
4.) Teach your child to be careful around strangers.
You don’t have to teach your child that every stranger is equal to danger, because that would make his world a very sad and scary place, indeed. But the basics should always apply.
Teach them not to accept anything from someone they don’t know, and not to go with that someone, no matter what.
Explain why they should be wary of strangers asking for help, and the possibility of it being a ploy to distract them or put their guard down. Help them to distinguish strangers they can approach should they need help, such as security guards and policemen.
5.) Teach your child how to make a scene.
I read a tip somewhere that the best thing a child can do, in case someone tries to make him or her go with a stranger is shout, “Hindi ko ito magulang (This is not my mom/dad)!”
It’s easy for people to assume that a crying child with an adult is simply being reprimanded, but if the child says something like this, then people who hear it will know that something is wrong and hopefully take action.
6.) Do the counting game.
Going back to the story of children being kidnapped inside restrooms, I remember my aunt telling us what she used to do when her sons reached that awkward stage where they could no longer go into the ladies’ toilet with her. She used to stand right by the entrance and make her sons count while inside the bathroom. If, for any reason, they would stop counting, that would mean only one thing and momma bear would come charging in.
So, just in case you are still spooked by bathroom kidnapping stories, you can always try this one out.
Children have to be reminded time and again. Don’t count on them to remember everything from a one-time discussion. By constantly reminding them of what to do and what not to do, it will be easier for them not to panic and to remember what to do, should they ever encounter a problem.
8.) Teach your nannies, too.
If your child spends a significant amount of time with his/her nanny, then the nanny should learn what to do, as well. Teach her basic self-defense and talk about what to do in different scenarios. There are many stories about nannies being approached by strangers telling them that the mom of the child has asked them (the strangers) to bring the nanny and child to a new meeting place.
In other cases, the stranger may tell the nanny that the mom wants her to deliver something somewhere and leave the child in his care. But if you have talked about these before, then she will know better and get herself and your child away to safety as soon as possible.
Back in 2002, there was an item in the news about an attempt to kidnap a nanny and her 1 year-and-8-month old ward in Makati. She was walking home from the mall with the toddler, a child of an expat, when a car stopped them and forced them inside.
Fortunately, the nanny was able to open a window in the backseat and began screaming for help. The unwanted attention got the kidnappers rattled, and they allowed the nanny to escape with the child.
9. Hold on.
There is nothing safer or more effective than the simplest and most basic rule: When out, take your child’s hand and hold on tight.
At the end of the day, all we want is to keep our children safe. As much as we also want them to be independent and to be able to roam freely, we still have to consider the risks. After all, better safe than sorry.