Kids run, shout, fight — and foil abductions

By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

Stephanie Quackenbush recalls walking to school on a sunny morning in Albany, N.Y., last year when, a block from school, a man grabbed her from behind.
He put a towel over her face. She screamed for help. "Shut up! Shut up!" he ordered. "I have a knife. I'll stab you."

"He was trying to force me to walk with him, but I kept fighting him," says Stephanie, then 14. Two men working nearby heard her yell and ran to help.

The attacker dropped the towel and ran off. DNA on the towel linked Darius Ashley to her assault and to the abduction and rape of two other young women. He's now serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Stephanie's case fits the pattern of most attempted abductions, according to a study released today by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The typical victim is a teenage girl on her way to or from school.

The study, released as a new school year gets underway, examined 403 attempted kidnappings by strangers or slight acquaintances that were reported by police or news media in 45 states from February 2005 to July 2006. It was conducted to learn how such attempts are foiled. The study did not look at successful abductions.

Six in 10 victims fought back and escaped, according to the ongoing study's initial findings. Three in 10 ran away before any physical contact, and about 10% were saved when an adult nearby intervened.

"It is more important than ever for parents to empower their kids," says Ernie Allen, the center's president. He says he doesn't want to scare children, but they need to learn to recognize danger and, if attacked, draw attention by screaming, kicking and running away.

"We look for patterns," Allen says. "These guys don't do it just once. An attempt is likely to be followed by another and another until they're successful." That's why he wants parents to report incidents to police.

National statistics on child abductions are hard to come by because kidnapping is not classified as a major crime, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. He says some incidents are reported as rapes rather than abductions.

He co-authored the most recent study on the topic by the Justice Department, which analyzed 1999 data. That year, 115 "stereotypical kidnappings" were reported — ones in which children were abducted by strangers or barely known acquaintances, taken more than 50 miles, detained at least overnight or held for ransom. Half were sexually assaulted, and 40% were killed.

A much larger number of children, about 58,000, were taken that year for shorter periods of time, mostly by people they knew but not relatives. In those cases, nearly half were sexually assaulted; fewer than 1% were killed. Nearly two-thirds were girls, mostly teens.

Finkelhor says kids should be wary of strangers — but they face greater risk of assault or harassment from other kids, family members or acquaintances.

"Allowing children to walk to school, certainly middle-school kids, in most areas of the country is a reasonable thing," he says, especially if the child is walking with a friend.

Robert Kemmet, a detective with the Oklahoma City Police Department, has studied 170 local kidnapping attempts and says identifying patterns has led to several arrests.

"We can create an environment that makes it very difficult for a predator to operate," says Kemmet, who orders extra surveillance when he knows of an area where someone has repeatedly approached children.

He cites common lures: "Hey, little girl, do you want a piece of candy?" Or "Can you help me look for my puppy?" Some predators, he says, are "bus trawlers" who drive behind a school bus, watching for a child to get off alone. "That's what the predator is counting on: the lone child," Kemmet says.

Stephanie's mother, Rhonda Quackenbush, says she always taught her seven children to yell or fight back if attacked. Never was it more important than when her family suffered an unimaginable tragedy nine years ago. Her husband and one of her two sons were shot to death at a friend's house. Another daughter, Stacey, then 12, screamed and ran away.

Quackenbush says Stephanie has recovered from her near-abduction. She is a sophomore at Albany High School who plays soccer and basketball.

She testified at her attacker's trial and says she's willing to talk about what happened: "It's a way for me to use it to help other kids."

Now Stephanie walks to school with friends when she doesn't get a ride. She never walks alone.

 


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