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Find Our Girls: What We Can Do To Keep Teens Safe

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Teen girls of color are missing in DC, mysteriously and quietly. Prior to social media outcry sadly, there has not been much national coverage over this terrifying and unsettling phenomenon. We have absolutely no idea where these girls are going or why. Is this random coincidence? Organized trafficking? What exactly are we up against? In the meantime, what can we do to prevent teens from being abducted? How much power do we as parents, concerned aunts and uncles have? 

According to the Washington Metropolitan Police,  in 2015, approximately 2,433 missing children were reported and in 2016 there were 2,242. This is a relatively consistent number and may be offered to reassure those of us with concerns. However, this is still one child too many who have disappeared without explanation. As parents we are afraid. As teachers and community members, we are concerned that so many questions remain unanswered. An important national conversation needs to continue about the safety of teenagers, particularly in the era of social media. What is a reasonable amount of autonomy for teens who want to exert independence, yet remain within the safe boundaries of supervision as predators seem to lurk in unsuspected areas, and form relationships?  Parents of girls of color, as a general group we may be behind the curve in addressing this. It is time we changed the conversation.

Here are 3 things you can do to address safety with your teens:

1. Talk to your teen often: This is the most basic concept, yet for parents of teenagers it's probably one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. Concerns that face teenagers can be combated by healthy conversation and dialogue on a regular basis with family members or adults in their lives. If you make talking with your teen (about any number of routine things) a habit, it will be natural to then talk about difficult things. The first task is not to pry or only force conversation for punitive measure. Parents and adults should aim to causally engage their teens and understand life from their perspective often. This makes having frightening or overwhelming topics easier to broach and you have sown the seeds of trust and connection. Do not make a big occasion of the conversation; engage them while doing regular things like walking the dog together, cleaning dishes, folding laundry, or driving to an event. 

Teens need to know they can be targeted for child trafficking and that it does not just happen in the movies. They need to know their own awareness is vital to their safety. As much as we would like to put our teens into a bubble, there is no way to shield them. So talking raises awareness and gives them the tools to pick up on clues. It forces them to tune into their gut instinct when something doesn't feel right and then act. Additionally talking builds connection. Children who are depressed, lonely, disconnected, being bullied or isolated are easy targets for predators that use emotional connections to lure in your teen children and build trust. If you note that your child seems isolated follow-up and together figure out solutions to this and the root of the problem.

2. Know the company they keep: Again, thinking back to my own childhood, this is such a basic concept. My parents would never let me spend time at the home of someone whose parents they did not know. I used to find it so frustrating but now I completely understand their concerns. Teenagers today have virtual connections which are complex and sometimes hard to track.  The strategy for this goes back to an old school perspective, know their networks. Make sure to meet the parents of friends and friends themselves. If you cannot make those introductions, they should not be allowed to spend time unless in public places with supervision. Create the expectation with your teen that you will be surveying their social media accounts. Get logins and passwords for all accounts, take away devices in the evening, and add software to screen activity. This may upset your teenager and that is understandable, but your job at this stage is not to please them but to keep them safe. One of the difficult challenges for our generation of parents is the desire to be friends with their child. I hear this lot from parents: "I don't want my child to be upset with me". They don't need more friends, they need a parent.

The internet is an insidious way in which our children get lured by predators so reinforce that they shouldn't be tagging locations on public posts, wearing identifying uniforms, or showing license plates. Encourage your child to have privacy settings that only allow individuals whom they know in person to befriend them, even if it seems like the request comes from a mutual friend. They should trust no one.

3. Stay in touch with your teen: There are so many tracking devices now to monitor your child's activity. From cell phones to watches to applications that you can download and use- there's a variety of options to see where he or she is. If your child is at home alone for extended periods of time, create a check-in routine where they call you or text. Become friendly with your neighbors and friends close by so they can drop in and be your extra set of eyes and ears. Set rules that no one enters your home without you being there- not even good friends.

Above all keep talking to your network about these lost children. The power of the internet is we can use it to help. Please post pictures, names, and identifying information for children that are missing. You never know where the clues may come from to solve a case or return a child safely back to his or her home. If you are aware of any abnormal activity please alert authorities. We live in a culture where no one wants to overstep boundaries or to get involved and be wrong. Trust your instincts, if something does not appear appropriate, it probably is not. You may be the critical piece in saving a child’s life.


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Dr. Virgll is a board certified pediatrician and children's health expert. She offers in the motherhood trenches parenting advice.