Thursday, August 6, 1998
Christina Williams did everything right. On June 12, when the 13-year-old girl went out to take a walk near her Fort Ord home, it was still daylight. She stayed in her own neighborhood. She even took her dog. She followed all the safety rules kids today have drummed into them by teachers, parents, child safety organizations and police officers. McGruff the Crime Dog wouldn''t have told Christina to do anything different.
And still, she was taken. Grabbed, forced, coerced, persuaded--who knows? Maybe by the two men whose roughly sketched faces stare out at us from the posters slapped on countless trees and telephone poles. Maybe by someone else. She might still be in Monterey County. Or she could be far away. Very far away. But the reverberations from that nearly two-month-old abuduction strike very close to home.
"You take every precaution, and something like this can happen," says Monterey parent Beverly Cook. "It''s out of your control. I don''t know as she was doing anything wrong. She was walking her dog, on her own block. It''s much more frightening for the parents than the kids."
That''s what terrifies local parents--the unspeakable horror of not only having your child snatched away from you by unknown assailants, but also the helpless, agonized realization that no matter what you do, no matter what you tell your child, the unthinkable could happen anyway.
Kidnappers don''t always follow the rules.
"When we feel we''re dealing effectively with a threat, we are less anxious," says Monterey psychotherapist Paul Stewart. "If these guys had been caught right away, people''s reactions would be entirely different. They''d feel, ''the system works, there is security.'' It''s that nameless, faceless, ethereal kind of threat that makes us feel most powerless, most fearful, because our ability to mount an effective response is most limited.
"So people''s fears about this situation are well placed," Stewart concludes. "There is very little we can do about it, beyond prosecuting these guys when they are caught."
Nancy McBride, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington,Va., says abductions like this leave communities in fear for a long time. "It puts the whole community into a tailspin as far as the fear element," she says.
Many local parents who spoke to CW said Christina''s abduction has made them afraid. Many of them are talking to their children about Christina, warning them to be even more careful whom they speak to, and where they go. Some parents are taking action--putting kids they used to leave home alone in daycare centers, imposing stricter curfews, having their kids fingerprinted or videotaped in case--God forbid--the unspeakable ever happens and parents need to track a missing child.
But how can a parent "plan ahead" for a child''s abduction? That''s really what videotaping or fingerprinting is about--giving parents a way to identify their children if they go missing. Some parents don''t even want to think about that possibility.
"Part of you wants to deny you have to do it," says Salinas parent Laura McTighe, who is debating whether to fingerprint her three children. "We drag our feet. People say, ''You have to do it.'' But it''s sad we have to think about it."
But the reality of Christina''s abduction has tipped the balance in many parents'' minds. They''re lining up for free videotape sessions at local stores and sports centers. They''re snatching up child identification kits provided by local police departments, to document their child''s fingerprints, hair and blood type. Apparently doing something, anything, feels better than doing nothing.
Phil Penko, community services officer for the Monterey Police Department, says that in a typical month, his department gives away 10 to15 child identification kits. This past month, they gave away more than 800, completely depleting the station''s supply. About 200 were handed out to parents at the city''s Fourth of July lawn party, but the rest were given to folks who showed up at the police station and asked for them. The fear barometer is way up.
Interestingly, none of the local police stations have reported an increase in panic calls from parents, either to report missing children or to ask for safety tips. But people are calling in by the thousands to report possible sighting of the suspects, or their car, and every one of those reports is investigated. Some people have been stopped numerous times in their cars because they look like the car or the suspects on the Christina Williams poster, says Randy Taylor, public relations officer with the Monterey PD. "It''s unfortunate, but we have to follow up every lead."
Parents may be afraid, but most say they haven''t let their fears overwhelm them. Those who have modified their behavior since the Williams case broke are tending to do so in very private ways, by being more protective of their own children.
At the Bayview Children''s Center in Seaside, executive director Dolores Gunia says some new children have enrolled in her daycare program since Christina''s disappearance. "Their parents decided they didn''t want to leave their children alone at home during the day anymore," Gunia says.
Over at the Monterey Peninsula YMCA, executive director Laura Kelly says parents of children in her summer program have been "very particular" about the sign-in and sign-out procedures the Y uses when dropping off or picking up a child. "Parents are much more concerned about our procedures this year," says Kelly. "We''ve really had to tighten up. We''ve stopped taking authorizations over the phone. The parents are relentless, and they''re right. This is a parent''s worst fear, and so close to home."
Dave Crozier, a crime prevention specialist with the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department, has been manning a special investigative station at the Carmel Crossroads. "Initially, the fear kicked off a reaction to be overly protective," he says. "I''ve heard parents verbalizing their fears in front of the stores here, telling their kids, ''Stay close to me.'' They come in and talk to me a lot about what they should do. The fear is very evident right now."
And when parents are scared, they translate their fears to their children. "I hear the parents'' fears, and I know it''s going over to the kids," Crozier says. "That''s what concerns me. I think the kids are getting mixed messages. The kids are doing a lot of talking amongst themselves. There''s probably a lot of creative imagining going on. My kids, who are 5 and 7, are using their imaginations to ward off attackers, using karate kicks."
Kids know about the Christina Williams abduction. They can''t avoid it, parents and educators say. It''s on the news and in the papers every day--even when there''s no new news to report--informing them, scaring them, making them feel more vulnerable.
Kids are talking about Christina, with their parents, and with their friends. As they talk among themselves, their fears can escalate, fueled by vivid imaginations as well as anxiety over a very real danger.
Michael Holland, 12, arrived in Seaside for a summer visit with his dad just a few days after Christina''s disappearance. He learned about the case from the other children in his YMCA summer program. Now, he says, he''s afraid to walk the family dog outside his father''s home just down the block from the Seaside police headquarters.
"The other kids think she''s dead," he says quietly. What does he think? He pauses, thoughtfully. "I think so, too," he admits.
Eleven-year-old Amy Mahoney of Monterey has similar feelings. "When I heard about Christina Williams, I was scared because I thought someone would kidnap me, too," she says, adding that her friends "are scared, too."
Amy says she is more careful to stick close to her parents when they go shopping now. "I keep safe," she whispers. "I hope they bring her home."
Some children''s fears are so heightened it affects their day-to-day functioning. One Carmel Valley mother says her 9-year-old daughter, whose name she declines to give--to avoid embarrassing the child--is so frightened the mother is ready to take her for therapy.
"She''s freaked out," the mother says. "The other day, a UPS man came to the door and she started screaming, ''Mom! Mom!'' She won''t let me out of her sight. She wants to sleep in my room. She''s having a real hard time with this."
Other children cope with their feelings through a show of bravado. Ten-year-old Josh Cook of Monterey says he''s "not really" scared of the two men suspected of abducting Christina. What would he do if he saw them? "Kick them in the balls, that''s all," he says demonstrating a well-aimed kick to reinforce the seriousness of his resolve.
"A lot of the kids are taking it lightly," says Salinas resident Terry Donovan, mother of an 11-year-old daughter. "It doesn''t seem to affect them. They don''t believe it will happen to them."
Whatever your child''s reactions, experts say it''s important to talk to them about disturbing incidents like this abduction. "Some moms never talk to their kids," says Salinas caregiver and mother Ute Call. "They say, I don''t want to scare my kids. But these things happen. It''s really important to talk about it."
Stewart warns parents that while it is crucial for them to talk to their children about personal safety, in order to reinforce lessons the kids learn at school, adults must be careful not to transfer their own anxiety to their children, thus making the kids overly fearful.
"Parents want to do something to protect their children," he says. "Either they believe they can''t do anything, and then they feel anxious. Or they do something, and it''s not always the right thing." Fingerprinting a child for identification purposes, for example, could make the child more frightened if the parent doesn''t explain the reasons behind it very carefully. "If the parent says, ''We''re doing this so we can find you if someone steals you,'' that could create unnecessary anxiety in the child," Stewart warns. "Parents'' anxieties can be translated to the child."
According to the statistics, it is extremely unlikely that your child will be abducted by a stranger. But it does happen. Christina Williams is one of 25 children under 18 abducted in California as of July 15 this year. She is the only one in Monterey County in 1998, although there were three county cases last year, all of which have been solved (see sidebar).
But statistics don''t always help. Fear doesn''t necessarily increase or decrease in direct proportion to actual danger, but has more to do with a person''s perception of that danger, or memories of past traumas it triggers in their psyches, Stewart says. "I feel more anxious walking around in the world, because I know there are people like that out there," says Stewart. "I understand the likelihood of it happening to my own children is extremely rare, but I''m still anxious."
Fear isn''t always bad, if it leads people to take action to reduce their danger. When it comes to fear of children being abducted by strangers, the fear may be "justified and useful," says Penko, if it leads parents to, for example, fingerprint their children. "You never want to think you''ll have to use those fingerprints, but it''s better to be safe than sorry," he says.
In the late ''70s, he recalls, a California teenager who had disappeared seven years earlier wandered into a police station and told officers he thought his name was Steven. The boy''s claim was verified through his fingerprints, Penko notes.
And if the worst happens, fingerprints can be used to identify a child''s body. While tragic, that, too, serves an important emotional function. "When a child is missing, as long as the body isn''t identified, the family goes on hoping," Penko says. "This is a way of providing closure."
The Christina Williams case, and the constant publicity surrounding it, is impressing on many local children how important are the personal safety lessons they learn at school and at home.
Kate Green, an associate program director at the YMCA, says that campers in the Y program always have to use the "buddy" system, even when going to the restroom. They are never allowed to walk alone. Sometimes kids grumble at this rule. "But the Christina Williams case, unfortunately, has provided a way for us to explain why they have to do this," she says. "It feels more close to them."
If many local parents have become more protective of their children since Christina''s disappearance, others have not changed the way they behave. In most cases, this isn''t because they don''t care, or aren''t terribly saddened by what happened to Christina Williams; they''ve just decided they don''t want to let the outside world affect their children''s lives any more than they have to.
Monterey resident Michael Mahoney, father to 11-year-old Amy, says he''s not doing anything differently since hearing about the case. "I''ve always been a hovering parent, anyway," he says. "But I don''t want her to go into hiding, or lock her up. She''s been following the case, talking a lot about it. She''s concerned about the little girl, as we all are."
Striking a balance between protectiveness and over-protectiveness is the challenge for parents in today''s increasingly unsafe world. But, short of locking children in the house 24 hours a day, how can parents ensure that their children will never come in contact with outside danger? Some parents also worry that telling their kids how dangerous the world is, and how they must be wary of every adult they encounter, will leave their children with a frightening, limiting picture of the world.
"Unless a parent is going to restrict a child''s freedom so their quality of life is compromised, what can you do?" asks therapist Stewart. Balance is the key, he maintains. "Parents must evaluate their own thoughts and feelings when deciding about their actions towards their kids, so they don''t restrict their child''s movements based on their own anxieties, but based on what will increase the child''s safety."
While it may be difficult to control one''s own fears about a tragedy like this, it is possible to control how one translates those fears into actions.
"As parents, we have to be guided by what will be best for our children," he says. "For sure, it''s not best for our children if we make decisions based on our anxiety. We have to make decisions based on what we know about real dangers, and what we can do to keep them safe." cw