They Don’t Look Obvious: What Everyone Should Know About Child Abductions

This mom saw a child looking uncomfortable, so she trusted her instincts. Here's her story—and what everyone should know about the realities of abduction.

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When Becky Beach saw a five-year-old girl sitting in a hot car outside a store in Arlington, Texas, she knew that something wasn’t right. Her first concern was for the child’s immediate safety—the temperature was rising, and the windows of the vehicle were up.  But something else seemed odd. The child seemed distracted and uncomfortable, so Beach decided to call the police. “I knew I couldn’t stay there for long—I had my own family to get back to—but I felt like I needed to do something,” Beach tells HealthyWay.  She decided to stick around until the authorities arrived. As the cops opened the vehicle and spoke with the child, a man came out of the nearby grocery store. “He saw the police, and he had a look of shock,” Beach says. “His eyes popped out of his head and he started running away. I thought, you know, that guy might be up to something.” Beach told police what she’d seen, and they quickly tracked down the man. He was the child’s father, but he didn’t have custody—and there was an Amber Alert out for the young girl.  “He had snatched her away from school,” Beach says.  Beach, who writes a blog on motherhood, says she typically wouldn’t have called the police right away. Something felt off, although there was nothing specific about the girl’s behavior that raised red flags. In retrospect, she’s glad she made the call. “If you see something suspicious like this, then always take action,” she says. “A child’s life could be in danger.” Beach’s story shows one of the uncomfortable realities of child abduction: It rarely looks dramatic. 

Abductions don’t look like you’d expect them to look.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), U.S. law enforcement recorded 424,066 reports of missing children in 2018. In cases where NCEMC aided law enforcement, less than 1 percent were non-family abductions. These are the types of cases you’re likely to hear about on the news; a child is snatched off the street or lured into a vehicle. While they’re certainly serious situations, they’re extremely rare.  “What is very tricky is that most abductions and trafficking isn’t ‘stranger danger,’” Matt C. Pinsker, adjunct professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells HealthyWay In many cases, the abductor is someone the child knows and trusts. Often, the abductor tries to keep the child calm—and as a result, passersby don’t realize that anything’s wrong.  “Something I teach my law enforcement to look for in cases of human trafficking or abduction is how the child interacts with the supposed parent,” Pinsker says. “Because of threats and coercion, when we spotted and rescued children, they were almost never screaming, crying, or fighting. Instead, the child will be silent or, if saying anything, will say nothing more than carefully coached lines.” So, what can people look for? If abductions don’t look like what we expect, how can we recognize them?

Experts recommend watching for indications that a child is uncomfortable with their caregiver.

When law enforcement officials believe a child is in danger, they gather information, then look for subtle clues that could help them understand the situation. “What we would look for is the body language of the child,” Pinsker explains. “For example, does the child hang back from the ‘parent’ or act fearful in the person’s presence? Children typically go to and latch onto a parent for comfort, especially in a stressful situation. When a child has been abducted, instead, the child will appear fearful of the adult and hang back.” “When we spot this, we separate the child from the parent for a brief period and see if there is a change in the child’s demeanor. We will try to put the child at ease to relax and trust us, and get him or her to talk to us and hopefully be truthful.” Obviously, Pinsker doesn’t recommend this approach for strangers; you can’t realistically separate a child from their apparent caregiver, even if you’re sure something’s wrong. Still, if a child seems uncomfortable and remains distant from the adult they’re with, consider telling the police. 

Another sign that something’s wrong: The “parent” doesn’t seem to be parenting.

“There can be other signs, such as if an adult who is supposedly a caregiver is ill-prepared to care for a child,” Pinsker says. “For example, a lack of children’s toys [or] no car seat.” Beach says her experience reinforced the importance of trusting instincts. While she didn’t have any clear indication that the girl in the car was in danger, she asked herself why a parent would take a risk by leaving a child in a hot car. “It didn’t seem right,” she tells us. “That’s why I felt like I needed to get the authorities involved.”  Granted, in some situations, strangers won’t be able to tell whether a caregiver is properly equipped to handle a child, so take the entire situation into account before reacting. If, however, you see signs that a child is in danger—as was the case in Beach’s story—call the authorities immediately.  

While non-family abductions are rare, people should know the signs.

Non-family abductions aren’t common, but they certainly occur, as one mother’s shocking story demonstrates. Diandra Toyos was browsing IKEA for a new couch when she noticed a man circling the area. He kept getting closer to her 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. “My mom noticed as well and mentioned that we needed to keep an eye on him,” Toyos wrote on social media. “We moved on…and so did he. Closely.” Her mother noticed another man circling the area and staring at the children, so she made strong eye contact with them to let them know she thought they were up to something. After that, the men disappeared, but Toyos also reported the men at IKEA’s security desk. “I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking,” she wrote. “This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards. I’m reading more and more about these experiences and it’s terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.”

Look for suspicious behavior, and make sure they know you’re watching.

According to the experts we contacted, Toyos did everything right: She trusted her instincts, stayed on top of the situation, and told a security guard as soon as possible. Perhaps most importantly, she showed the potential abductors that she was watching them. “You can spot a possible dangerous situation when you see red flags, such as a man trying to lure a reluctant child into a vehicle, or a man sitting on a park bench alone or in a playground, offering candy to kids,” forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD, tells HealthyWay. Lieberman has served as an expert witness in child abduction cases. Granted, some “red flags” look similar to a typical tantrum, and nobody wants to interfere in another person’s parenting. Lieberman suggests trusting your instincts but taking appropriate actions to distinguish between dangerous situations and typical kid behavior. “When you see a child screaming, crying, or fighting against someone who might be their parent or a predator, look at the expressions on their faces and their body language,” she says. “For example, a predator would be looking around to see if anyone is noticing the struggle, whereas a parent would be more focused on his child. A child would be more scared if they think they are being kidnapped, whereas they would be more angry at their parent.” In some cases, simply showing an interest in the situation will be enough to scare the would-be abductor away. 

Parents should teach children what to do in an emergency.

Abductors will try to separate kids from their parents, so every child should be coached on how to respond to potentially dangerous situations. “Of course, the standard practice of teaching children not to talk to strangers, or go anywhere a stranger has asked them to go to,” says John DeGarmo, PhD, director of the Foster Care Institute and author of several books about child welfare issues. Kids should know that adults never need help from children, so if a stranger is asking them to help find a puppy, take groceries to a car, or do anything else, they should refuse. DeGarmo says that children should be ready to make noise and seek out a trusted adult as soon as a problematic situation arises. “If approached by a stranger, remind the child to run away, screaming for help,” he says. “Let the child know that it is okay to say ‘no’ to someone who asks them to do something you have told them they may not, or something the child finds uncomfortable. …Encourage your child to report any strangers reaching out to them, either in person or online, to you.” Kids should also learn techniques for avoiding danger, such as the “Velcro technique.” If someone tries to grab them, they should grab a tree, stop sign post, or other object and refuse to let go. Tell kids to make plenty of noise. Consider getting whistles or other loud noisemakers for older children (young children will, of course, blow these noisemakers constantly).

Don’t forget about the dangers of the internet.

DeGarmo notes that many abductors work on the internet, so parents should be vigilant about monitoring kids’ internet behavior. He recommends making sure that the kids understand you’ll be watching them; while you’re likely to meet some resistance, kids are less likely to interact with strangers online if they understand that their parents are monitoring them. Experts also recommend paying attention to sudden changes in online activity. If kids spend long hours online at night or if they suddenly turn off the computer when you come into the room, talk to them. One in eleven children aged 10 to 17 receive unwanted solicitations online, but by establishing clear boundaries and keeping open lines of communication, parents can reduce the risks. If you’re concerned about a possible family abduction, take additional precautions and make sure that your child has a set course of action. “If you’re in a high-conflict family law situation, make sure your kids know all of the ways to contact you,” says family law attorney Julian Fox. “When the kids are not in your custody, insist on frequent phone calls. This will give you the peace of mind that your kids are safe. Finally, if you’re worried that the other parent might take the kids to another country, make sure that you have their passports.”

If you see something, take action, but let the authorities confront the potential abductor.

Let’s say you’re out in public and you see a child acting uncomfortable around an adult. What should you do? “If you feel a situation is dangerous or wrong, you can approach to a safe distance and ask if you can help,” Lieberman says. “You will know right away whether this is a kidnapping in progress or a family dispute.” Once again, Lieberman says that the key is to pay attention to small details that might reveal whether or not the child is actually in trouble, particularly if you decide to approach the potential abductor. “If a predator claims that he’s the dad, the child’s reaction will show you he’s lying,” she says. “If it is the dad, he will likely be embarrassed as he declines your help.” Lieberman also suggests tracking details that might be helpful later. “Before you approach, note any identifying features, such as the [abductor’s] face, clothes, height, weight, and license plate, so you can give it to the 911 operator when you call.”  Above all else, trust your instincts. If something seems wrong, contact the authorities—and pay close attention to the signs that could indicate danger for a child. Beach says this last point is especially important. “Everyone’s in their own little world on their phones,” she says. “Just pay attention. You never know.”

HealthyWay Staff Writer
HealthyWay’s Staff Writers work to provide well-researched, thought-provoking content.