Special Report: Stranger Danger
Halloween is a few days away and the holiday season starts shortly after that. Families will be out and about with children in tow, but before putting on those costumes, officials say there's a danger that parents may be are forgetting: the danger of strangers.
According to information from a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, every year nearly 800,000 children are separated from their parents. That equates to one gone every minute of the day. Many are returned but others are never seen again.
Working in conjunction with the Dougherty County Sheriff's Office, FOX 31 conducted an experiment with one family to see how school age children would react to strangers.
Pamela Pike, the mother, was in on the secret and watching from afar as undercover officer Michelle Fenn made a move to try and lure the children away by using a small dog to gain their trust.
In the experiment, the children immediately approached the officer.
She then asked them if they wanted to feed the dog and with the reply of yes, the children then began to follow her through the park to her car.
Their mother never realized how her children's friendliness could pose a threat to their lives.
"It puts a perspective on things. They love animals. All my kids love animals and that dog won their heart and you know they don't know her and it makes you think," said Pamela Pike as she watched her children walk towards the detective's car.
She says in the moment, a thought crossed her mind that if someone were aiming to kidnap the kids, they would be gone.
"I would be devastated. I'll be very devastated. I have an eight-year-old, a four-year-old and a one-year-old," said Pike, "If anything happened to them, I don't know what I would do."
Although the incident was a test, it opened her eyes to the need of addressing the issue of strangers with her children.
Michelle Fenn who went undercover during the operation said without any work, besides the presence of a dog, the children were willing to leave their comfort zone and trail behind her.
"I don't think it even crossed their mind," said Dougherty County Sheriff's Officer Michelle Fenn.
Officials say parents should inform children that it's never safe or okay to leave with strangers. They say the promise to pet a dog or get candy for free does not warrant permission.
"Even if a police officer comes to the school and says your mother has been hurt in a car accident, I need you to come go with me. We teach the student not to go simply because of the fact that parents should instill in their children that they should have a pass code," said Dougherty County School Counselor Patricia Bill Harris.
She says if the person does not know the code, then the child shouldn't leave.
After seeing how her kids reacted to the stranger, Pamela Pike said although they teach the subject in schools, parents should make sure the issue is reinforced at home.