As she played with a friend outside her house in a suburban, gated, Southern-California community, she was kidnapped, then driven seventy miles away, sexually assaulted, beaten upside the head and finally asphyxiated via pressure to the chest. (In other words, her killer pressed on her chest until the breath was forced from her lungs and her heart stopped.) Samantha would have turned 6 eleven days later.
The man who killed Samantha had been accused and tried for molesting two girls (one his girlfriend's daughter; the other, her cousin). Statistics tell us there were likely many other victims who never reported him. There was no reason why this man should have been acquitted. What happened to Samantha was an extreme case of the miscarriage of justice that occurs when convicted sex offenders are not kept locked behind bars, where they belong.
Seventy percent of all convicted sexual-assault felons committed their crimes against children; over half of their victims were under age 12. When these men are released from prison, the rate of recidivism is exceptionally high. There is no known treatment or cure for child sexual abusers; the only solution is keeping them in prison -- and away from children.
After Samantha's death, her mother, Erin Runnion, educated herself about child abuse and abduction and became a founder of the nonprofit organization the Joyful Child Foundation, which aims to protect our nation's children from sexual abuse and abduction through programs that unite and uplift communities. The Joyful Child Foundation is a proud partner in the "Not One More Child" child-safety initiative and the radKIDS child-safety educational model, which is recognized as the national leader in violence-prevention for children.
According to Ms. Runnion, there are specific steps that parents can take to "eliminate opportunities for sexual abuse to occur." (It is important to note that 90 percent of sexual abuse is at the hands of someone the parent knows and trusts.) Here are her suggestions:
* Even nonverbal babies and toddlers must have their impulses honored. If there is someone that they don't want to be held by or left alone with, don't force them. The worst thing you can do is coerce an unwilling child to hug or kiss someone, even if this person is a family member. When we make our child hug or kiss someone, we are telling them to ignore their instincts and that their feelings don't count.
* Talk to your children before something happens. Teach them that nobody should touch their private parts, and practice with them how to tell someone to stop. Teach them to scream and run away. There are many helpful children's books on the subject of sex abuse. (Momlogic likes "Your Body Belongs to You" and "It's My Body.") As you read the books, answer questions as they come up -- even the tough ones. Don't mince words. You can say something like, "There are people who may seem nice, but really want to hurt you. If they ever touch your private parts or tell you it is a 'secret game,' you must scream 'No!' and then run and tell me immediately."
* No sleepovers for kids under 10. This may seem extreme, but according to Ms. Runnion, molesters commonly attack kids during sleepovers. She suggests that if your child is invited to a sleepover and wants to go, you make it your policy to say, "Mommy comes with, or we don't go."
* Limit the number of people you leave your children alone with. Before leaving them with someone new, remind them of your safety rules. Create a private password or phrase that your children can use if they feel uncomfortable and want to come home. If, for example, your child is at a playdate and the big brother or dad is making them feel weird, they may be too embarrassed or afraid to call you and ask to be picked up outright. (It might hurt their friends' feelings.) But if they can call and ask you an innocent-sounding code question (like, "Did you remember to feed the goldfish"), then you can be the "bad guy" -- and come get them right away (with a plausible excuse).
* Have a child ID kit on hand in case of emergency. This is an envelope that includes recent photos, medical records, custody papers (if applicable), a cheek swab and/or fingernail clippings (in a separate plastic bag), fingerprints, a list of regular activities and the contact info for the adults in charge. According to Ms. Runnion, if your child is abducted, the last thing you want to have to do is run around trying to get all this information for the authorities. It's best to have it prepared beforehand -- and pray that you will never need it.
* Above all, trust your instincts. Just because someone seems strange doesn't mean they're a predator, but it's better to be safe than sorry. According to Ms. Runnion, when we talk to our children about how to interact with other people, we place a disproportionate emphasis on the concept of politeness. "Of course, we all want sweet and well-mannered children," she says. "But their safety is the most important issue. When a child is feeling uncomfortable, they DO NOT need to be polite. They are allowed to scream, yell, kick, bite or do whatever they need to do to get away. Constantly remind your child that their safety is the most important thing to you."