Thu, Aug. 15, 2002                                         The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

Taking a high-tech approach to child security

By Lini S. Kadaba

Inquirer Staff Writer

 

In a time when there are 2,000 reports of missing children each day, and dozens of tragic cases like those of Destiny Wright, Samantha Runnion, and Danielle van Dam, many families wonder:

 

How do you keep a child safe from abduction? And how do you find a missing child?

 

For some, the answer is child security - high-tech and street-smart.

 

Parents looking for an edge, and ways to ease their fears, have plenty of options:

 

Electronic leashes with comforting names such as Digital Angel and Child Guard that promise to keep track of children.

 

Personal-safety education, including the national Escape School with its Spy Kids overtones; martial-arts classes; and Situation, a board-game prototype created by a teenager in Abington, Montgomery County.

 

A multitude of identification tools, from shoe tags with a child's basic description to home ID kits with bags to store DNA samples such as hair.

 

And on the horizon is a unit with sophisticated tracking technology - the global positioning system - small enough to implant in a tot's earlobe.

 

"I expect we're going to see a substantial growth in the use of systems that will be able to track people using GPS," said Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

 

Lately, phones at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have been "ringing off the hook with companies applying for a patent or about to go to market" with a child-security device and hoping for an endorsement, the center's director, David Shapiro, said. The center says more parents also are calling for advice.

 

The center estimates there are about 100 child abductions a year by strangers, half resulting in deaths - making it a rare occurrence in a nation of 285 million people.

 

Some advocates for children are critical of the technological solutions, saying that educating children - relentlessly, every day - is the best safeguard.

 

Still, the gadgets abound.

 

Applied Digital Solutions Inc., of Palm Beach, Fla., sits on the high-tech front line. It is developing the prototype for an implantable GPS unit that could pinpoint a child's location within 75 feet.

 

Would a parent really place a device under the skin of his or her child to guard against a vague threat? "We have GPS units for our cars," Matthew Cossolotto, an ADS spokesman, said. "If your car is stolen, we can locate it. Do we love our cars more than our children?"

 

ADS also has created the VeriChip, a microchip the size of a rice grain that can store personal information and be implanted in someone's body (though it does not yet use GPS).

 

Cossolotto is one of nine people who have been "chipped" in the upper arm. "Someone has to be a pioneer," he said. "It's a wonderful conversation piece."

 

In May, a family of three got chipped on the Today show. Since then, further implants have been stopped while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviews whether the chip should be regulated as a medical device.

 

GPS technology also comes in more conventional - wearable - forms.

 

ADS makes the Digital Angel, a $399 unit available as a child's wristwatch. The unit sends an alert if the child wanders beyond a certain distance. The location is accessed through a 24/7 call center or the Internet, for about $30 a month.

 

Other monitors - using technology spun off from devices to locate luggage or a lost purse - sound alarms or beep the parent, pager-style, if a child moves out of range.

 

Child Guardian, a $49.95 device, has a cord that a youngster can pull to activate a 105-decibel alarm (as loud as a leaf blower). A parent can sound the alarm, too, with a remote-control device.

 

"It gives you an edge," said Linda Allgood, vice president of the CyberSide & Co., based in San Diego, which sells the Parent Pager ($64.95), a perimeter monitor and alarm, as "an invisible handhold for child safety."

 

"I have a grandson, and we have it on him all the time," she said.

 

JSL Trading, an e-business in Vancouver, British Columbia, that sells Child Guard, a perimeter monitor, dropped the price of the device from $19.50 to $16.50 about a month ago because of the spate of abductions. "Act now to protect your child," its Web site says. Sales have increased 30 percent, to about 30 units a week, said its president, Winston Leong.

 

Technology is only part of the solution. "Anything that alerts to a possible problem can help," said Vince DiNova, executive director of Child Protection Education of America, a nonprofit group in Tampa, Fla., that registers missing children. "But you still need to educate your kids."

 

That doesn't mean a lecture on "stranger danger," the mantra of past generations. Instead, children need to focus on self-esteem, thinking smart, and watching how strangers behave toward them.

 

"It's not how they look or what age they are... . It's what they ask you to do that matters," said Jan Wagner of Austin, Texas, the author of Raising Safe Kids in an Unsafe World and founder of Yello Dyno, a business that teaches safety through songs. "You can no longer avoid teaching your child this knowledge. The risk is too great now."

 

Yello Dyno calls predators "Tricky People," and one of its songs advises: "Take three steps back and run like the wind."

 

The recent abductions have boosted business. "September is usually a slow month," said Linda Fratantoni, a Yello Dyno trainer in West Chester. "My September is booked already."

 

In the Escape School, children learn getaway techniques. The free program is sponsored by Service Corp. International's Dignity Memorial funeral homes because "the last thing we want to do is bury a young child," a spokesman said. At a 45-minute assembly this month in Toms River, N.J., 100 children, ages 5 to 13, learned that if an attacker gets you inside his car, look for a penny to jam into the ignition. Or if he locks you in the trunk, kick out the taillights to attract attention.

 

"We're not here to make anybody afraid. We're here to make you smarter," said Bruce Polcino, funeral home director at Anderson & Campbell Funeral Home in Toms River.

 

Children practiced the maneuvers and repeated the phrases, "Think smart, not scared" and "Getaway, right away."

 

"I thought it was pretty neat - all the different things you can do, like the coin in the car," said Ashley Bruno, 12, of Toms River.

 

Educators think this kind of training is essential.

 

"I just think we can't give them enough information," said Diane Mallon, the principal at Chesterbrook Academy in Lionville, Chester County, who plans to bring Yello Dyno to her school.

 

Mallon, the mother of three children, ages 4, 6 and 7, constantly drills her brood on what to do if someone grabs them. And she has identification kits with photos - updated yearly - for each child. Would she go as far as to "chip" her children?

 

"Isn't that bizarre?" she said. Then she added, "For certain families, it might not be a bad idea."

 

Contact Lini S. Kadaba at 215-854-2214 or lkadaba@phillynews.com.