Seven-year-old Jose Hernandez swiped through images on his mother’s tablet device in Oakland’s Verdes Carter Park as they took their place in a swelling crowd of parents and other children waiting for events marking the National Missing Children’s Day to begin.
Like many other kids of his generation, Jose has had an early initiation to the world of screens and high-speed Internet, often playing with devices that have the capability to educate and entertain, but which could also instantly disclose his appearance and location to strangers. “He likes to play with it but I don’t let him use applications that connect to the Internet. He only plays Angry Birds,” said Jose’s mother, Teresita Hernandez.
The Hernandez family was participating in the Take 25 child safety event held on May 25, a day set aside to remember children who have gone missing, remind families to take extra precautions and teach children about the need to keep their parents aware of their whereabouts when they are outside the home.
The Take 25 campaign—a 25 day awareness campaign that runs from the May 1 to May 25 every year—asks parents to devote 25 minutes of their time on any day to speak to their children about ways they can enhance their safety in and outside the home and what they need to do to protect themselves from the threat of abduction.
At Verdes Park, families discussed different methods they have had to devise to increase the privacy of their children while the kids played games.
“This is an opportunity for us to really stress the importance of keeping our children safe,” Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said in a statement released before the event, adding, “Child exploitation is a serious problem, and we all have responsibility to do what we can to address it.”
Jose and millions other children in America have access to devices that authorities warn have increased their risk of being abducted by both family members and complete strangers because they may inadvertently disclose information about the child’s identity and location. Teresita Hernandez says she disables location settings on her tablet and mobile phone whenever Jose uses them, but other parents at the event seemed to think that was not enough.
“I have tried as much as possible to make sure my kids do not use cell-phones connected to the Internet, not even for games,” said Joanne Schmutzler, the mother of two children, a five-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy. “They can only access the Internet from home and school.”
By the end of the day at Verdes Park, Jose seemed to have lost the tablet to his mother, and most parents seemed much less inclined to let their children to use electronic devices without closer monitoring.
Although the Oakland Police Department could not provide recent figures of how many children have been reported missing in Oakland, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a private organization that collects data on missing and sexually exploited children, reports that nearly 2,000 children are reported missing nationwide each day, bringing the number of missing children to at least 800,000 annually.
Of the 800,000 children who are reported missing in America each year, NCMEC says nearly 200,000 are abducted by family members, and 58,000 are abducted by non-family members with the primary motive being sexual abuse.
“Each year, 115 children are the victims of the most serious abductions,” according to an NCMEC statement released last week. “[Children are] taken by non-family members and murdered, ransomed, or taken with the intent to keep.”
Over the last three decades since the National Missing Children’s Day was first observed on May 25, 1983, millions of children have been reported missing. NCMEC reports that it has received 3.5 million calls on its missing child hotline during that period and assisted law enforcement authorities with 187,000 cases of missing children. At least 175,200 children have been recovered through the organization’s efforts over the last 29 years.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs the Take 25 campaign to assist families; you can find more information about it here.