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BLOG: International Missing Children's Day - We must make children aware of the dangers without ruining their childhoods

The PACT/ CEOP report Taken, released to mark International Missing Children's Day on Saturday, calls for a revamp of ‘stranger-danger’ warnings in the wake of findings which show that in 42% of police reports studied, the abductor or would-be abductor was not known to the child.

The police data sample studied for the Taken report included 592 cases involving 675 victims. While the report states that in 95% of attempted abductions it was not possible to establish a clear motive, in 12 cases (involving 15 victims) the child was actually abducted by the perpetrator with a clear sexual motive. The circumstances in some other completed abductions suggest they were most likely sexually motivated, though this could not be confirmed.

Responding to the report, social worker Janet Foulds, experienced in working with children who have been sexually abused, writes about her concern that safeguarding policies don't revert to a simplistic notion of merely keeping clear of strangers. We need to educate young people, without hysteria, that the threat can come from those known and not known to them ...

"What we must not do is push the responsibility for staying safe onto children’s shoulders, it is everyone’s responsibility. It isn't reasonable to expect children and young people to work out who is safe or otherwise, especially with the grooming that goes on.

We know that sexual predators can and do act in all kinds of ways to procure children. However, by far the biggest risk of sexually motivated crime is by perpetrators known to the children. We mustn't forget the thousands of children being abused now.

The average age of the targeted children and their gender seems to correspond with the age of young vulnerable girls in recent child sexual exploitation cases.

This means that all children need a number of measures if we are to safeguard them, including awareness raising of the risks among the general public, and training for professionals about the problem – how to be vigilant and how to act if concerned.

Schools too, have their parts to play. We need a concerted effort to raise awareness of the issues in schools, and provide a clear means of reporting concerns that children may have about themselves or their friends. This might include use of ‘code words’, or identified safe places for children and young people to use in an emergency.

Young people need clear information about the risks, complete with phone numbers for people they can tell if they are approached. A dedicated phone line could help in contributing to evidence gathering, as police need to know about all attempted abductions.

We need to take early action to prevent young people becoming vulnerable, and this means ensuring that services are there for children in the first place.

There have been a number of high profile cases recently where disputes have resulted in abduction and even, subsequently, the murder of children. Perhaps legal professionals can also take part in an alert system when custody battles become hostile and clients may actually become a threat to the lives of their own children.

Paradoxically, in warning children not to talk to strangers, we may be deterring them from asking other strangers who may be able to help them if they feel they are in danger.

We don't want to spoil their childhoods but somehow we need to help children to understand that abusers can be anyone. They need to know to tell someone who can help them if they are worried."