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Q&A: A codeword saved a girl from abductors – but it’s not the best protection from stranger danger

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A 10-year-old girl in Ajax, Ont., was able to foil her would-be abductor on Monday thanks to a codeword her parents taught her to use if she was ever approached by a stranger, as The Globe's Timothy Appleby reported on Wednesday.

Many child-safety organizations recommend creating a codeword for kids to know in exactly such a situation, and parents who haven't used a codeword with their kids before reading about what happened in Ajax probably will now. But there is more parents need to do to protect their kids, says Stu Auty, founder and president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to making schools and neighbourhoods safer.

Should every family have a password to protect kids in situations like this one?

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In this case it worked out, and that's great. But it could be that a child has a password and it engages a stranger. They could say "Do you know the password?" and all of a sudden you've got a conversation. Then you've got an adult convincing a child because they're in conversation. Then all of a sudden thoughts are put in a child's head. Children are forgiving.

So what should parents teach their kids to do?

I'm not negating the password, but that is a downside. [Parents] will say, "Under no circumstances will you engage." The obvious thing to do is, if a child is approached by a stranger, run and away and go to an adult you know nearby. That's a fail-safe mechanism. Sensible adults, even if it's not a child predator, they'll surely understand if a child runs away.

Is there much value in going through "what-if" scenarios with kids, so that they're familiar with these types of situations if one ever arises in real life?

I do. That's teaching a child to be street smart. There's just various rules that parents should talk to their kids about. One of them is that you never walk alone. You should be accompanied by others. Your parents should arrange for you, as a child, to be with somebody else. And children should be taught to be observant. They should also have a geographic boundary within their neighbourhood. In other words, you don't go down dark alleys and you don't play in construction sites and you don't go down into ravines, that sort of thing.

What about older kids who might be coming home from school by themselves?

You need a check-in routine. When they get home, they phone mum. Or they check in at certain predetermined times. That way, they feel comfortable and you feel comfortable as a parent that your kids have a basic, sound strategy on this particular subject.

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How should parents talk to their kids about this subject?

When you engage in a discussion about the rules, you can discuss why there are rules. Why there are parameters. For instance, when you tell your kids not to play in the ravine, you don't necessarily say that it's because some bad guy is going to come and grab them, but that if they fall down and get hurt, no one might be able to come and get them. It's a dialogue about staying safe. You don't want to develop a fortress mentality.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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