As long as there have been children, parents have worried about their well-being.
Don’t talk to strangers. Text me when you get to school. Don’t get in the car with a friend who’s been drinking. Stay in the front yard so I can see you.
Over time, as worry induced fear, some parents made sure their kids had IDs, complete with photos and fingerprints, helpful information on the chance they ran away or were abducted.
And now, at a time when Amber Alerts are common and predators lurk behind computer screens, fear has manifested into the almost macabre, prompting parents to have a lock of their child’s hair snipped and a dental imprint made — in case the unthinkable happens.
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Child safety fairs, such as one planned later this month in Keller, are where such ID kits can be obtained.
Keller police will fingerprint and photograph children, a hairstylist will clip a few strands of hair and a dental hygienist will make dental imprints. All the items will be zipped into a plastic bag and given to their parents to be stored in a freezer, only to be retrieved in the event the child is kidnapped or worse.
Jessica Cook, a Keller mother of boys ages 9 and 4, said it makes sense to own a kit.
“You never want to think something like this would happen to your child, but wouldn’t you want to do everything in your power to find them quickly?” Cook asked.
Said Heather Stauffer, a Fort Worth mom with a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son: “There’s so many children that are taken, and trying to get all these things together in that moment of panic is hard. I’ve got it. I hope I never need to use it, but I’ve got it if I need it.”
Billy Rudd, Fort Worth police crime prevention specialist, agrees that it’s smart to have a child safety kit, including information that will help identify a child.
“It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” he said.
But some crime and child safety experts wonder if a parenting line has been unnecessarily crossed.
Nadine Connell, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, said today’s parents are prone to worry, and often they worry about the wrong things.
“The least likely things can cause the most fear, and that’s why we worry about them,” Connell said.
According to the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children, about 20,500 cases of missing children were reported by law enforcement and families in 2016. Of those, 90 percent were endangered runaways, 6 percent were family abductions and 1 percent were nonfamily abductions. Another 2 percent were critically missing young adults between 18 and 20 and 1 percent were lost, injured or otherwise missing.
Hits close to home
The upcoming fair in Keller is the idea of Mary Nero, owner of Keller ATA Martial Arts.
She began holding child safety fairs 10 years ago when she opened her taekwondo school in a small, older strip center on Keller Parkway.
Nero, 43, is passionate about child safety because she saw the effects of a child kidnapping and murder up close. Nero lived in Hamilton Township, N.J., in 1994 and, at age 20, participated in the search for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a convicted pedophile who lived across the street.
The crime prompted the enactment of Megan’s Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to register in a database that is available to the public.
Nero talks often about her connection to Megan’s Law, Stauffer said.
When Nero told parents she planned to host a safety fair and offer child ID kits, Jamie Wheeler, a Keller hairstylist, offered to clip locks of hair for DNA purposes.
Brent Robinson, a dentist in Saginaw and the father of a taekwondo student, also had a personal connection to an abduction tragedy. His 19-year-old sister, Wendy, was kidnapped and murdered in Weatherford in 1987. In December 2016, police arrested Ricky Lee Adkins and charged him with the murder. Weatherford police said there was a potential for more arrests in the case.
Since 2007, Robinson has paid for hundreds of tooth print kits that are used to get impressions of a child’s teeth for identification purposes. Most years he comes and takes the impressions himself. This year, Nero said, Robinson is unavailable, so a dental hygienist will take on the task.
He declined to comment on his sister’s death because of its ongoing investigation.
“It’s a really hard time for our family,” Robinson said.
‘The next they may be gone’
Amber Hagerman’s mom, Donna Williams, spoke at Nero’s first fair about her daughter’s 1996 abduction and murder in Arlington, which helped establish Amber Alerts in 1998.
In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Williams suggested that parents take lots of photos of their children, in addition to those in the kit, so they have plenty of current pictures on hand. Williams also said parents should take their children to the dentist regularly for X-rays, which could be used to identify a body.
Williams said she believes child safety fairs are important — especially for getting fingerprints and photos — but she also emphasized the important role Amber Alerts play.
“It gets the community involved, and the community wants to help,” she said. “The quicker we get that information about the child out, the more likely the child will come home.”
According to the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children, more than 880 children have been recovered through Amber Alerts to date.
The first child rescued by an Amber Alert, Rae-Leigh Bradbury of Fort Worth — who as an infant was taken in November 1998 by her babysitter — will begin her freshman year this month at the University of Texas in Austin, according to a report from NBC DFW.
“I’m really proud of that,” Williams said of Rae-Leigh going to college.
As for Amber, she believes the killer will be one day be identified.
“I’ll never give up. I hope Amber will have justice,” she said.
Her best advice to parents?
“I always want to remind parents to hug their kids, tell them you love them,” she said. “One day they may be here, and the next they may be gone.”
She was the first child to be saved by an Amber Alert
Area police provide ID kits
Keller Community Services Police Officer James Intia has helped fingerprint kids and get their photos for ID cards at safety fairs.
He said it’s smart to have “the fingerprints, the photo and that DNA.”
He said he didn’t have the forensics expertise to determine the value of the tooth imprints.
Keller police officers also go to city schools and neighborhood “National Night Out” events to do the fingerprints and photos, if someone requests them. Most years, they do about five events. Police provide two laminated ID cards with the child’s photo, description and thumb print, one for each parent to carry, and an 8-inch square to keep at home with a complete set of fingerprints.
Fort Worth police provide a similar kit with two wallet-sized cards with the photo, vital statistics and thumb print, along with a larger card with all 10 prints, according to officer Gezim Pollozani, a police spokesman.
The back of the card has a list of 12 questions for parents if their child goes missing. They include where and when the child was last seen, what the child was wearing, any known disability or required medication, if the child has ever run away and if there may be a custody dispute.
Rudd, the Fort Worth police crime prevention specialist, said the department annually processes ID kits for about 6,500 children. Specialists attend events, such as school carnivals, church fall festivals, community safety fairs and special events at area businesses and apartment communities, all over the city.
Rudd, who has worked in the department for 20 years, said his unit sometimes offers DNA kits if the hosting organization requests them. The DNA kits involve a cotton swab to get a sample from inside a child’s cheek and a place for a hair sample.
He’s had parents come up to him at fairs who have had ID kits made in previous years and tell him how glad they were to have the wallet-sized card with them. In one instance, the parents said their child got lost in Walmart, the parents showed the card to store security, and the child was quickly located.
‘Parents want to be prepared’
Connell, the assistant professor of criminology at UT-Dallas, said she understands the reasoning for ID kits and there is no harm in getting them, especially if they help a parent sleep better at night.
But she also contends that parents should focus most of their efforts on more common dangers, such being vigilant about getting kids to wear bike helmets and monitoring cellphone and internet use.
Patricia Eddings, senior lecturer in forensics in criminology and criminal justice at UT-Arlington and a former forensics specialist for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, said that creating a child ID kit is a positive move, but there are better things to collect than a clipping of hair and tooth prints.
A good DNA sample from hair requires the roots, she said. A clipping will not provide enough DNA to make a definitive identification.
Eddings recommends buying sterile swabs from the drug store and swabbing a child’s gum line, waiting for the swab to dry and storing it in a sealed paper envelope in the freezer. She has three children and said she has stored swabs for each of them.
Many forensics experts are debating the value of tooth molds or prints because they may not provide enough information, Eddings said. As Williams noted, asking for and keeping copies of a child’s dental X-rays is a better option.
The National Clearing House for Missing and Exploited Children suggests keeping a child’s old toothbrush or hairbrush for DNA identification, she said.
Besides helping to locate missing children, a child safety kit can assist a family seeking closure.
“Parents want to be prepared in case a tragedy affects their family and technology potentially can help bring a resolution to an awful situation,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“For many parents who lose their children, the tragedy is compounded by uncertainty about identification, which may otherwise be inconclusive or drag out over several years.
“A child safety kit, while gruesome to think about, may be the ounce of prevention needed to bring closure to an awful blow to a family.”
Parents will be putting a child safety kit together at Keller ATA Martial Arts, hoping to never use it to find their missing child, or worse.Joyce Marshall firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Anna Tinsley contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.