The chills running up and down their spines are the result of a brush with the unthinkable last week: A possible child predator prowling area neighborhoods for potential victims.
It began with a seven-year-old girl in Mount Pleasant, who was playing on the sidewalk in front of her home in Brickyard Plantation on Saturday, Jan. 6, when she was approached by a man in a "red van" who asked her to get in the vehicle and help him find his lost dog.
"We have always told our girls to stay away from any person who comes up to you in their car," said the girlís mother, who asked that her family not be identified. "Another thing we have tried to teach is that adults donít need help. There is no reason for them to be asking you to do anything like that."
Thankfully, the common ploy used by child predators to lure victims into their cars didnít work this time. The little girl remembered her parentsí wise words, said "no" to the man and quickly ran inside to tell her mother. This possible predator may have left without a victim that day, but he took something else from this close-knit, welcoming neighborhood and others like it across the region: A comfortable sense of security.
"I was to the point where I would let my kids go out and play in the yard in a neighborhood full of kids," added the Brickyard mother, who is now planning to have a security system installed in their home. "It makes me angry that I canít do that anymore."
After the alleged abduction attempt, the mother immediately alerted authorities and sent out an e-mail blast alerting friends about what had happened. The cyber warning spread quickly, filling parentsí e-mail boxes all across the Lowcountry, including Daniel Island. Soon, other reports of similar incidents involving a red vehicle were reported in Hobcaw Plantation, the Patriots Point area, and Pawleyís Island. Police are still not certain if the incidents are related.
Martha Tumblin, an authorized "Stewards of Children" facilitator and community consultant with Charleston-based Darkness to Light, praised parents for their swift response.
"Whatís important is that people are talking about it," said Tumblin, who conducts training throughout the area to help people recognize the signs of child sexual abuse. "Folks are e-mailing (each other) like wildfire and doing what they are supposed to do. Weíre talking with our kids and reviewing what we know about Ďstranger dangerí guidelines."
Indeed the "fear factor" among parents on Daniel Island was high last week as residents contemplated how such a dangerous series of events could occur so close to home.
"Itís been a wake-up call for me, because Iím so comfortable," said island resident Kelly Steyer of Center Park. "Whatís been scary is having to tell our children that we just have be more alert now. I do think that as parents we have to be watchful for everybody elseís children as well."
Tracy Arnette and her family, who live near the Daniel Island School, are already doing things differently as a result of last weekís news.
"When my son goes to a friendís house or is with a babysitter, I am very adamant that an adult is outside with him at all times," she said.
"The best advice I can give parents is to know where your children are and who they are with," said Lt. James Doyle, the new City of Charleston Police Commander on Daniel Island. "This is a safe community, but the problem with any community is that in todayís world with the mobility that is out there, a criminal can be in Georgetown this morning and in Daniel Island or downtown Charleston in two hours to do what they are going to do and leave."
Doyle encouraged children to play in groups and urged parents to not allow young children to be outside alone.
"Every parent has to evaluate their own child, but I would never allow a child under 10 to go off unsupervised," he added. "If there is other adult supervision thatís fine. When youíre that young, you need to err on the conservative side."
Itís also important for parents and other adults to know that strangers arenít the only ones who can pose a threat to children. Tumblin stressed that about 90 percent of the child sexual abuse incidents occur between a child and someone they know, often a family member or other "trusted" adult. In fact, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the 797,000 children (under 18) reported missing in a one-year period of time studied, about 115 were the victims of a "stereotypical kidnapping" involving someone the child was not familiar with. Still, adds Sgt. Trevor Shelor, Crime Prevention Officer for the City of Charleston Police Department, children must learn to protect themselves from both types of perpetrators.
"Whenever a child is approached by a person in a vehicle, that is a major danger signal," he warned. "They may be asking directions, or what time it is, or to help find a petÖbut any of those are to get you closer. And if they can get you in the car, itís over."
Shelor recommends that kids always keep a safe distance of 10 to 15 feet between them and any car that may approach them. In addition, he encouraged kids to immediately turn and walk in the opposite direction that the car is moving. A bike or scooter can also be used to thwart a kidnapping attempt.
"If the child is on a bike, stay on the bike," said Shelor. "It is much harder to shove a child attached to a bike in car."
Another tactic criminals use, added Shelor, is to take advantage of the common practice of putting a childís name on his or her belongings.
"People like giving monogrammed stuff with names on backpacks, coats and lunchboxes," he said. "Write it on the inside. If they want to wear a baseball jersey or something with their name on it, avoid that. It puts the predator on a first name basis with your child."
In the case of the Hobcaw Plantation incident, the occupants in a red vehicle parked suspiciously in a cul-de-sac, reportedly flashed police badges to an inquisitive resident and told her they were there doing "undercover work" in the area. According to an e-mail circulating last week, the resident checked with the Mount Pleasant Police Department and was informed there was no such work going on in the area. So what happens if someone posing to be a police officer approaches a child?
"Itís very rare for a detective to go and pick up a kid without their parent knowing," added Shelor. "They would be in a marked unit. That should be our policy. Theyíre not just going to show up and pick up a child out of the blue."
A family "password" is another idea suggested by Shelor and local child safety advocates. Pick a word or phrase that only your family knows so that if a law enforcement officer or other designated person needs to pick up your child for any reason, your child will know it is OK to get into the car if the adult knows the password.
There are also things children can do if approached by a possible predator in a store or business.
"If they are in a store and a person comes up to them, a lot of time it will be the Ďhand over the mouthí situation where the person tells them Ďdonít say anything or Iíll hurt youí," said Shelor. "That is the time to make absolutely as much racket as you possibly can. Thatís the wrong time to be quiet."
Back on Daniel Island, police continue to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity, including unusual behavior by any of the six registered sex offenders in the area encompassing the 29492 ZIP code.
"We keep a tab through the county and state registry of people we have in the area here," said Doyle. "We keep an eye out to see if they are out and about and what they are doing."
Doyle also called on residents to continue to report anything that might be out of the ordinary.
"One in 100 calls, it will turn out to be something," he said. "It may prevent a crime or lead us into something else. People say I donít want to waste your time. Youíre not wasting our time when you callÖIf it turns out to be nothing, no harm done. Thatís what weíre here for."
When will parents start to feel better about recent events? Law enforcement officers and those who work to protect children hope itís not anytime soon. Because when it comes to keeping kids safe, parental vigilance and a renewed sense of awareness can mean the difference between life and death. And it means that more and more stories like this one will have happy endings.
Did you know?
E-mail crime alerts available
You can register to receive e-mails on a weekly or bi-weekly basis with information about crimes that have been reported in the area. The list is compiled by Sgt. Trevor Shelor, Crime Prevention Officer for the City of Charleston Police Department, and can be specific to certain ZIP codes.
To begin receiving the alerts, visit the www.crimeweb.net, and click on the "register" tab. There you will be asked for your e-mail address and the ZIP codes you are interested in. In addition, Sgt. Shelor advises all residents to be vigilant about reporting all suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
"Call when something does happen, no matter how small it is, especially when you see that person who is out of place," said Sgt. Shelor. "Youíre the person in the position to think of it as suspicious."
Shelor recommends that Daniel Islanders call the police dispatch at 577-7434 when making reports. Additional information about crime prevention can be obtained at the following website: www.charleston-pd.org.
Child safety tips