SIOUX CITY | A suspicious man in a van was first spotted by children in Sioux County, Iowa, in September. Over the next few weeks, similar reports – real or imagined – began popping up elsewhere.
No children were harmed and no criminal charges were ever filed. But the fear last year prompted police, community groups and educators across the region to take a fresh look at what’s being done to keep kids safe.
Sioux County Sheriff Sgt. Nate Huizenga said people took more notice of child abduction threats.
“You live in rural Iowa, in Northwest Iowa, you take for granted that nothing like that could ever happen here, but it could -- and it may,” he said.
And it has happened before.
Donna Sue Davis, 1, was taken from her Sioux City home and killed in 1955. Colleen Simpson, 14, vanished from her New Bedford, Iowa, home in 1960. The disappearances of Des Moines paperboys John David Gosch, Marc James-Warren Allen and Eugene Martin, all abducted in the 1980s, have never been solved.
Last summer, the case of missing Evansdale, Iowa, cousins Lyric Cook, 10, and Elizabeth Collins, 8, riveted the nation. Their bodies were found months later.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates 800,000 children are reported missing in America each year. More than 200,000 children were taken by family members without permission.
Almost all are returned unharmed. Only a fraction of cases – 115, the Center estimates – were victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping, involving a stranger holding a child captive for a long period.
But there are “stereotypical” cases, one of the most notable being Elizabeth Smart, who as a 14-year-old was held for nine months in 2002-2003.
Smart was the keynote speaker at the United Way of Siouxland's Women’s Power Lunch on April 24. She said children should learn as soon as possible about all aspects of safety, from kidnapping to bullying or unwanted advances from people they know.
“It’s all very similar in that there is something we can do about it,” Smart said. “By talking about it and bringing it to light and by helping children understand what’s O.K. and what’s not O.K., and making sure that they can trust someone or that they have someone they can tell,” she said.
THE START OF A NATIONAL MOVEMENT
The local focus on child abduction prevention continues a national trend dating to the mid-1980s, when the case of New York City child Etan Patz, 6, launched the missing children's movement. His was the first face to appear on milk cartons – the first in a series of murdered young people forever tied to the issue.
There is Adam Walsh, 6, who inspired the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act after his 1981 killing and Amber Hagerman, 9, whose 1996 murder resulted in the creation of the AMBER Alert system.
There is Polly Klaas, 12, whose 1993 abduction case in Petaluma, Calif., made international headlines and the creation of the KlaasKids Foundation, led by her father, Marc Klaas.
He said the missing child movement continues to be needed to make sure kids are safe.
“We have to protect our kids against these people, that's what we have to do,” he said, “because, once these characters, these monsters, get our children I think all bets are off.”
A ‘FULL-AWARENESS’ APPROACH
In the case of the alleged suspicious vehicles this fall, the sightings spurred safety conversations among people who run places like the after-school program at the Sanford Community Center in Sioux City.
Knowing what to do if a stranger approaches is particularly important for the 40 children who attend the program four days each week, said center Executive Director George Boykin.
Many have working or single parents and may spend periods of time home alone after school, he said.
“If someone knocks and they’re the only one there, and we find a lot of cases like that, do not answer that door,” Boykin said. “If they persist, call 911.”
Sioux City Community Schools works with police to discuss safety. Next week, two schools launch the “walking school bus” program, which promotes health and safety by encouraging children to walk to school in groups, said Brian Burnight, the district director of education.
“It’s a full-awareness-type of approach,” he said. “We just want to make sure kids are aware of the best practices.”
The police, school district and various community groups also are working on the Kids Safety Fair, planned Saturday at the Long Lines Family Rec Center, 401 Gordon Drive in Sioux City. Sioux City police will present a “Stranger Smart Program,” and other activities are planned. The event is free.
Huizenga, the Sioux County official, said the community can learn a lesson from what happened last fall and take action.
“I think it just opened everybody's eyes,” he said.
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