Everybody's on the radar in my world," said John Kelly, community educator of the Saratoga office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Saying prevention and education can stop one more "missing person" poster from going up, Kelly has hosted 200 free school programs about essential safety precautions in 11 counties since the office opened in July 2011. NCMEC also has offices in Rochester, Utica and Buffalo.
In New York state, 22,000 children are reported missing each year, including those abducted by family members or strangers, and those who run away from home. Many become trapped in sex trafficking.
NYSUT shares NCMEC's mission of keeping kids safe and annually supports the rides for missing children.
"Parents and schools want to know about safety programs to protect their kids," Kelly said. All educational NCMEC programs are based on proven outcomes and are focus-tested with parents and kids. "I don't like to scare kids," he said. "We try to educate them."
Kelly, a retired police officer and former school resource officer, shows students how predators set up fake profiles and use them to relate to students' problems. Predators eventually will suggest meeting in a public place, so students won't be scared.
People who prey on students "show no socio- or economic borders," he said. They "are looking for a kid who's detached somewhat socially, who has low esteem."
Easy targets are kids who feel more accepted when they are on a computer spending time with someone who is telling them nice things. "The predator is doing what we call ‘grooming,'" Kelly said.
"There's been an increase in students connecting with kids they have never met; especially on Xbox live," said school counselor Jacquelyn Hoffman, a member of the Chatham Central School Teachers Association. Kelly spoke to her students about Internet and predator safety and cyber bully prevention.
"Kids still aren't getting it. The Internet can be a dangerous place," said Shannon Britten, school counselor and member of the Galway TA.
Kelly also presented at her school and set up a booth for parents so the dialogue on Internet safety could continue at home.
Kelly encourages students to tell an adult or call the Cyber Tip Line if they are concerned about how a friend is using the Internet; if someone asks to meet them offline, is talking online about sex or sending or receiving obscene photos.
"Friends can sound warning signs," he said, relaying how a 13-year-old confessed to friends she was talking online with an older man and had plans to meet him. The friends talked to the school counselor, who called the NCMEC tip line (1-800-THE-LOST). The students "came forward because of the presentation," Kelly said.
The girl is safe.
If you think you see a missing person, or if you have any information or concerns about a child being exploited, call the Cyber Tip Line 1-800-THE-LOST.
The New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services has a Missing Persons Clearinghouse. Call 1-800-FIND-KID for children, college students and adults with special needs.
SAVE THE DATE
May 25 is National Missing Children's Day. Rides for missing kids take place May 17 in Rochester and Utica, May 31 in Buffalo, Sept. 20 in the Capital District and Sept. 27 in Syracuse. For more information, go to www.rideformissingchildren.org.