Monday, November 4, 2013

November: National Runaway Prevention Month

November is Runaway Prevention Month, and we’d like to start the month by discussing GLBT youth: an underserved and under recognized group of children who become missing because they run away from, or are thrown away by their families.

GLBT youth tend to experience a greater exposure to the risk factors for runaway/thrown away situations:

  • ·      Rejection by family
  • ·      Rejection by peers
  • ·      Bullying at school
  • ·      Exposure to community violence (either first or second hand)
  • ·      Internalized hate/rejection
  • ·      Isolation and lack of support structure

What can we do to reduce the risk of bad outcomes for the GLBT youth in our state? 

  • ·      Promote great ideas like the Family Acceptance Project, a program that helps families have honest and authentic conversations with their GLBT children in a way that reduces the feelings of personal rejection, hostility, and isolation that can arise as families grapple with these issues.

  • ·      Encourage our schools and community organizations to adopt responsive and sensible “zero tolerance” policies that are solution and reconciliation –oriented, that promise to address EVERY incident of bullying, record the incident, create a resolution appropriate to the situation (not one size fits all), record the resolution and commitments of all parties, and hold them accountable.

  • ·      Model appropriate behavior for our own children in our own families, and not accept violence of any kind toward anyone. Even if a family has opinions that make them unable to accept a person’s sexual orientation, they can model respectful behavior toward all people, and let their children know that they expect the same level of behavior.

  • ·      Contribute our time, energy and money to organizations that work to reduce community violence and promote personal and community safety.  Missing Children Minnesota provides a runaway prevention program for all children called Erica’s Choices.

  • ·        Contribute our time, energy, and money to groups that provide support and advocacy for GLBT youth.  Groups such as PFLAG and District 202 are good local groups that help support our young people.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Case study: Concerned Great-Grandmother

Case overview:

Rowena called us to see if there was anything that we could do to help her grand-daughter, Alicia, recover her two-year-old son, Mikael.

Alicia had broken off an abusive relationship, and obtained a Temporary Restraining Order against Paul.  The Paul denied paternity of Mikael. Alicia was the only parent listed on the birth certificate, and Paul never legally established paternity, and has never contributed to the support of his child.

However, Paul’s mother showed an interest in Mikael, and frequently had him for visitation. After the break-up of the relationship, Paul moved back into the house with his mother. During a visitation following an incident where Mikael had been hospitalized for a serious infection, Paul refused to allow them to pick up Mikael for the follow-up appointment.

Rowena and Alicia made repeated attempts to contact Paul or Paul’s mother, and to retrieve Mikael. There was no answer at the door, or to phone calls.  On one occasion, Paul answered the door, threw things at Rowena, cursed her out, and threatened her with violence.

Rowena believed that Paul was only keeping Mikael as a way of torturing Alicia, to perpetuate the cycle of abuse that she had broken when she ended the relationship, and got a restraining order.

Everyone Rowena contacted informed her that this was a custody matter not a criminal matter, and that Alicia needed an attorney. It would be months before they could get a court hearing.

Action taken by MCM:

Our volunteer (under the supervision of Case Manager, Millie Ives) informed Rowena of Alicia’s rights under Minnesota State Statute 609.26 and referred them to the Hennepin County Family Court Self-Help Center, where Alicia was able to apply for a Temporary Custody Order.  After the TCO was granted, the police accompanied Rowena to the home where Mikael was being held, and retrieved him safely.


Child was safely returned to his custodial parent, and process was begun to establish a permanent legal custody order establishing Alicia as the legal and custodial parent for Mikael.  Case was closed in three days.
 (All names changed to protect the privacy of our clients and their families)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Finding your child is a new beginning

This is really great news for one searching mom, but the story does not stop with finding her children.

Monday, June 7, 2010
A Southern California mother whose two children were reported missing 15 years ago has been able to find them — using Facebook.
The mom is not being identified. But authorities say the children's father, Faustino Utreta left with the children in 1995 — when they were ages 2 and 3. A district attorney for San Bernadino, California says the mom found her daughter's Facebook profile after searching the social networking site in March.
An official says the two children — a 17-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy — are now in the custody of the state of Florida. For now, the two teenagers are being cared for by a non-relative in Florida with whom the pair have an existing relationship.
The father has been charged with kidnapping and with violating child custody orders.

We have found that social media is an excellent way for parents to search for their missing children, especially children who have run away. Our case manager (Millie Ives) has closed a number of cases, old and new, by looking for the missing children on Facebook. 

Many missing kids neglect their online data footprint, and leave their accounts open to the public, and post freely about where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. We wish that more kids would take safety precautions with their personal data, but if that information is available to help their parents locate them, we will use it to help bring them home safe. We know for sure, that those who prey on kids do not hesitate to use this information to harm them, and we want to get them home safely before that happens.

We have also helped parents find missing kids by reminding them that if they are paying for their child’s phone, they can have the service provider locate the phone. If there is a missing person’s report on the child, the police can be tipped off to their location if necessary.

We have not had any cases of reunifications of long-time missing through social media as of yet, but one thing to remember about this particular case, is that these children will likely be reunited with a mother that they have no memories of, and no relationship with. 

The whole family will need lots of professional help and support to build healthy and sustainable relationships. It is a shame that the children were denied contact with and knowledge of their mother and their relatives in their mother’s family for so long. This sort of situation can cause difficulties for children that they may not even recognize or understand until many years in the future.

But at least these young people now have the choice to get to know their mother and work to make up for all that lost time.  We wish them the best for their futures, and hope for all the missing to come home.

Friday, May 31, 2013

They are NOT "OK": When children run away or are abducted by family members

Too often, when news of a missing child comes across the wire, we hear people say things like “Oh, she ‘just’ ran away” or “He’s fine.  His mother took him, how bad can it be if he’s with his mother?”

It is important to get past this idea as a society that there are different “classes” of missing. Yes, different circumstances require different search and recovery efforts, but there should not be a sense that certain kinds of missing do not count, or are not important.

Some things for you to think about regarding run-aways, and abductions by a family member (sometimes referred to as “family abductions”).

In a “family abduction”

·         A child’s sense of safety, well-being, as well as mental and emotional health is violated when they are taken without warning and kept away from their custodial care-giver, their home, their friends, and their normal routine.  Even when they are returned in good health and uninjured, they are at risk to experience anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems.

·         Many children in family abductions have been told that the left-behind parent gave them away, is very angry with them, doesn’t love them anymore, or was killed. Some have been given disturbing and terrifying descriptions of the death of the left-behind parent.

·         Often, children abducted by family members have had their entire identity erased, had to give up favorite activities that they found comforting, and had to go by a different name. They are robbed of the right to their own sense of self.

·         Some children abducted by family members have been kept out of school, and not allowed normal social interaction, education, or medical care because of the risk that they will be recognized.

·         Children abducted by family members are often neglected or abused as the abducting parent fails to cope with the stresses of single parent-hood on the run…or when they are left in the care of others while the parent is distracted by the difficulties of a disrupted life.

·         It is not unusual for the abducting parent to take the child as a way of continuing a cycle of abuse of the custodial parent.  The child becomes an object used to torture the other parent. This is very damaging.

In the case of “runaways”

·         Not all cases categorized as “runaways” are actually run-aways.  Just because they are a teenager with problems, it does not mean that they are missing because they ran away.

·         A child might initially have run-away, but once they leave their zone of safety, they are at risk for a subsequent abduction.

·         Most runaways will be approached by a predator or a trafficker within 48 hours of leaving their zone of safety.

·         Runaways are sometimes running from real danger in their lives.  Just because they have run away from their support system, this does not mean that the danger cannot follow them and find them, it just means that they are cut off from help.

One of the things that we do at Missing Children Minnesota, is take call after call from people looking for their missing children who have been told by every person they have asked for help that there is nothing that can be done to look for their missing child. They’re told that when the non-custodial parent kidnaps their child, it is a “custody battle”, not a kidnapping. They’re told there is a waiting period.

Sometimes, as many as a half a dozen people in a month call us about their missing children. We are the first people to tell them their rights, refer them to resources, give them the language that lets them engage the system to work on their behalf. We are the first to provide real solutions and tools rather  than give them the brush-off because their cases are not recognized as missing children and abduction cases.

This needs to change, and the only way to change it is to increase public awareness of the problem, and public pressure for proper training and response of our system to uphold our laws and meet the needs of the missing and their families.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What is "Grooming"?

You may have heard the word “grooming” used in sex abuse cases, and thought that it was an odd phrase.

Social animals like dogs and monkeys groom each other to cement social relationships. When we groom our animal companions, they show us greater affection, and become more closely attached to us.  This happens with humans as well.  As many comedians have noted, people become so greatly attached to their estheticians and hairdressers that they actually feel guilty if they receive those grooming services from another person. One of the most iconic images of mother-daughter bonding is the mother brushing and fixing her daughter’s hair.

Understanding this helps us understand why “grooming” is the right word for the activities that abusers use to cement their relationships with their victims. Of course, these activities are not usually LITERALLY grooming activities, but are nontheless aimed at developing emotional intimacy.

Some examples are:
  • Gift giving
  • Spending time
  • Showing concern/understanding
  • Indulging in fun or attractive activities together
  • Affectionate touching
You might notice that none of the activities listed above seem particularly inappropriate or harmfull, and at appropriate levels, they are not.

The harm comes when they are used to break down healthy personal boundaries, and eventually create a coersive situation that the victim finds confusing and scary and does not know how to detach from.

In the situation where a predator is "grooming" a potential victim, these activities will tend to become increasingly excessive for their expected role in the child's life, increasingly exlusive, the relationship may begin to replace or strain other relationships, and the interaction will become increasingly intimate and emotionally intense. If the child feels responsibility and shame, it takes a lot of trust to overcome the barrier to reporting.

Grooming activites can take a darker turn after the child feels the desire to keep secrets from other children and adults about the relationship, the "gifts" can become items like alcohol, drugs, or pornography or other forbidden items. The focus of the activities becomes the gratification of the predator's needs, and the touching becomes intimate and exploitive.

There are several reasons why predators invest the time and energy into grooming:
  • It reduces the risk that the victim will resist the abuse.
  • It reduces the risk that the victim will report them.
  • It reduces the risk that others will believe the victim if they report.
  • It allows them to convince themselves that their victims are willing partners.
  • Some predators get more of their sense of reward and arousal from the grooming stage than from the victimization of their targets.

Grooming can occur in the victim’s home, in school, in social activities, online, or many other places. It is the process of gaining access to the victim, and gaining the trust, affection and confidence of the victim and the victim’s support network. The first sign of it is often that feeling of confusion about how to respond to inappropriate behavior.  Teaching our kids to respond appropriately to that feeling, and to seek help can go a long way to protecting them from abuse.

Now that we have some idea of what grooming is, and why predators do it, how do we recognize it, and how do we protect our children and ourselves?

Practice and teach maintenance of personal boundaries

Be wary of people who don’t respect boundaries, and teach children to recognize them and seek help dealing with them. Grooming in its early stages involves attempts to change the roles of the predator and their target, to create a sense of closeness and co-conspiracy in breaking these boundaries. This grooms the victim in part by making them feel special and exclusive, and by also getting them to think of themselves as a participant in the relationship. It also grooms the victim’s support system to ignore signs of abuse later on, or to attribute it to other causes.

I want to be clear that I am not talking about people who do not understand boundaries, though.

We all know that awkward person who just blurts out the “overshare”, or who hugs at times that don’t seem to call for a hug, or oversteps boundaries in giving and asking for advice or council. 

Social awkwardness can be the result of medical or developmental conditions, or a deprived upbringing that prevent some people from understanding boundaries on an intuitive level, and I certainly do not want to give you the impression that they are predators. These people long for engagement, and just don’t know how to do it properly. In fact, it causes them to be at a much higher risk for victimization themselves, especially as children.  

Just because they don’t have an intuitive sense of boundaries, however, does not mean they cannot learn the rules of social interaction on an intellectual level.

If they are informed gently and firmly that they have violated a social boundary, they will benefit from that information (no matter how difficult it is for you to deliver it). It is not unkind to tell them that you are uncomfortable, and why.

Of course, predators know what they are doing.  They create awkward situations because they are pushing the relationship out of accepted and comfortable boundaries. One small step at a time, they gain a more central position in the life of the child, and often, in the social support network for that child. We want to be careful about misrepresenting and stigmatizing people who are genuinely awkward, and at the same time recognize the importance of maintianing our right to determine the level of intimacy and engagement we will accept from others.

Regardless of the reason someone over-steps, it is your right to re-assert your boundaries, and insist that they be respected. Modeling this boundary maintenance for your children, and explaining it to them at an age-appropriate level is an extremely effective deterrent. If your children understand that maintenance of appropriate roles and boundaries is important, and that you are willing and able to help them; they will come to you for help and advice when they feel confused.

It also helps kids to see that these boundaries can be maintained in a way that is healthy and effective, because the children often know and like the person who is acting inappropriately.  They don’t want anything bad to happen to the other person; they just want help dealing with the inappropriate behavior. So if they know that you will not fly off the handle, and trust you to do only what is necessary to deal with the situation, they will be more likely to come to you.

If you have concerns about the behavior, especially if the person does not respond to assertions of personal boundaries, or to reminders of the appropriate limits of their role in your child's life, it is very important to report it to the proper authorities, and to talk to your child about the fact that it was necessary to protect them and other children, and to get the offending person the help that they need.

 If you need help deciding who to report to, you can call Missing Children Minnesota (612) 334-9449 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-THE-LOST) for referrals and resources.
Encourage your children to create, explore, take on appropriate risk and responsibility and seek rewards in appropriate ways.

Children are compelled to create, explore, take risks, assume responsibility, and seek rewards.  If, as trusted adults, we shut them down with “that’s too hard for you” or “that’s too dangerous”, we not only erode our status as trusted adults, and block them from a pathway to build self-esteem, but we open the door for anyone else who is willing to direct that youthful energy and drive for exploration.

As adults, though, it is so much easier to just say “no”, especially to some of the outrageous schemes that our kids come up with.

But behind every wild scheme that pops into your child’s head is a goal to be met, and a question to be answered. It is probably a goal and a question that the child doesn’t fully understand themselves.

 The desire to build a jump for their bicycle might be more a desire to know “What would happen if?” and be answered with permission to build miniature jumps and explore how a hot wheels car manages with various designs, an activity that could very well lead to a science fair ribbon later on.

Or the goal might be the desire to feel that sense of weightless flight, in which case allowing them to have a turn on one of those giant trampoline-harness contraptions at the county fair might be in order. Sure, it is still risky, but less risky than them sneaking off to try their luck with a child’s sense of structural design, catch-as-catch-can materials, and no adult guidance.

As you spend years answering your children with “hmmm…lets’ spend a little time imagining how that would work” or “what do you imagine it would feel like to do that?” or “What made you think of that?” rather than “no”, you are helping them build confidence in you and in themselves.  You are teaching them to build the affirmations and connections and experiences to which a predators grooming activities offer false short-cuts.  And you are setting yourself up as the go-to person for advice on how to deal with difficulties.
Teach small kids the safety rules, and practice them with the "What if game"!
  • If anyone (even someone you know and trust) tries to give you something, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN right away to the person who is taking care of you and ask if it is OK.
  • If anyone (Even someone you know and trust) wants you to go somewhere with them, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN right away to the person who is taking care of you, and ask if it is OK.
  • If anyone but the person taking care of you asks for your help, say "I have to ask first!" and RUN back to the person taking care of you, and ask if it's OK.
  • Anywhere your swimsuit covers is private, and nobody should touch you there unless you are hurt there or have a mess that you need help with. If an adult helps you, there should be another adult there too, and you should not have to keep it a secret.
  • ALL touch has to be OK with BOTH people. You can say "no".  You don't need a reason. Other people can say "no" to touch from you, and you should listen to them.

Nothing we do can protect our children 100% from what is out there, but these three steps are a very good start to reducing the effect of “grooming” on your children.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Custody Determinations are very important

We have been very busy lately working with parents who are looking for children taken from them by other family members.

We have been support left-behind parents with referrals to services, pathfinding, and emotional support. Sometimes, the left-behind parent has had to leave the home state of the child, leave the left-behind siblings in the care of friends and relatives, and take temporary leave from the job that supports the family in order to come to Minnesota and fight this battle.

We urge all seperated, divorcing and single parents to establish clear custody determinations, have them on file with the court, and keep official copies in your possession. You may have an amicable agreement with the other parent, but the situation can change suddenly.

Cases where a child is taken by a family member are much more easily resolved if you have a legal custody agreement or order on file.  It is less traumatic for the child to have things resolved quickly, and it is less of a burdon on the left-behind parent and siblings if the matter can be resolved quickly and in an orderly legal proceeding.

Under the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, a custody determination in one state must be recognized by the courts in another state. This is to prevent "custody shopping".  This is why it is so important to get the custody of a child on record in the state where the child is a resident.

Even if there is no disagreement between the two parents, it is reassuring to the children to know that a plan is in place, and the parents have an agreement that they have promised to abide by.

It is just a good idea over-all to settle these matters legally before any probelms arise.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Being a "Trusted Adult"

When we talk to parents and children about abduction, runaway, and exploitation prevention, we stress the concept of a “trusted adult”. Kids rely on trusted adults for advice.  They need the guidance and judgment that adults are able to provide due to their greater life experience and their position of power and influence in the world.

Trusted adults engage with children.  They are people whose intentions and judgment can be relied upon. Trusted adults know and understand their needs, and respond to them appropriately.

It’s sometimes difficult to engage with children. The fact is that they don’t always work to make it easy.

But there are a few habits we can cultivate to help us connect with our kids.

Increase the quality of everyday interactions.

It’s easy to get into the habit of conversing with our kids while also working, skimming the paper, or watching T.V. When your kids want to talk to you, even for something small and unimportant, try to stop what you are doing and make eye contact with them.  Get on their level.  Stand if they are standing, sit if they are sitting. Make sure that you understand what they are asking for, and why it is important to them. You might be able to help them come up with even better ideas to reach their goals.

If you need to tell them something, get into the habit of going to where they are, and telling them what you want directly. Avoid calling out from the other room, or out the door. You don’t want to be a disembodied voice just issuing orders.

Try to check in regularly with family traditions like the sit-down dinner, family game night, or reading and discussing a popular novel together.

Focus on solutions.

If a kid gets in trouble, they probably already understand how they got there. They didn’t come to you to be yelled at, they came for help fixing the problem.  Taking responsibility and facing consequences is an important part of that, but in a crisis, most people do better when the energy is focused on solutions.  The more constructive your responses are, the more trust you will earn.

When the crisis is over, and the child is filled with relief at having the crisis resolved, they will be more open to hearing advice about how they can avoid such problems in the future.

Increase the Quantity of Everyday interactions.

If you have a heavy workload, and tend to have long hours at the office, try to save items that you can do at home until the end of the day.  Bring the work home.  Even if you are not completely engaged with your kids, your physical presence is an improvement over your physical absence. You are more likely to have awareness of important information that would more easily slip past you while you are working late at the office.

Use your technology. Text, engage your kids through social media, send e-mail.  Leave notes and check in periodically.  Your kids are more likely to let you know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing if you show them the same courtesy.

Know who their friends are, and have them into your home.

Becoming a “destination house” is a great way to engage with your kids. Providing and participating in wholesome and attractive activities, keeping lots of snacks and making your home a welcoming, safe, supervised place to go ensures that you will know what is going on in your kid’s lives, and will be able to find more opportunities to engage with them.

Know who your kid’s other “Trusted Adults” are, and be sure to get to know them.

It is a good thing to know the people that influence your child’s decisions and outlook on life. Talking to your kids about who they listen to, andabout what they value in their support network can tell you a lot about their situation, both socially and personally.  It is a great barometer of their values, worries, and ambitions.

When you get to know their trusted adults (and their friends) you will also have a better sense of who your allies are in helping your child.  They may have resources that you can direct your child to that you yourself do not have. Making your child’s social support system part of your toolkit gives you some options that you might not have trying to “go it alone”.