Free outdoor festivals are part of what makes summers in Chicago special. They’re a great idea for family outings, but the huge crowds can make it a challenge to keep track of even the best-behaved child.
Ninety percent of families will experience losing a child in a public place, according to a parent survey by Wander Wear Inc., a company that creates products to prevent children from being lost. Fun, outdoor family time can suddenly turn into a parent’s worst nightmare when a child is lost.
"Every parent experiences this and it’s not a matter of laziness or ignorance," says Alyssa Dver, family safety expert and founder of Wander Wear Inc. and the Center to Prevent Lost Children. "Kids are curious." Although Wander Wear Inc. sells many products for lost-child prevention like locator tags and brightly colored T-shirts, Dver founded the center to inform parents about what they can do before buying anything. "Nothing in the world is going to replace (a caregiver’s) vigilance, keeping their eyes and ears on that child," Dver says.
Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, agrees. "I don’t think it’s a good idea for parents to think that just because they have a product, they’re safe," she says, adding that cell phone use is probably the best technology to help ensure family safety.
Here are some ways to make sure your child returns home safely from Chicago’s outdoor summer events:
• Put safe, easily accessible and visible contact information on your child. Whether you buy an identification bracelet or write your number on your kid’s arm with a Sharpie, make sure to brand your child with your contact information so others can help if he or she is lost. "Even a 2-year-old who doesn’t speak very well can flip up their sleeve and point to a number to have somebody call you," Dver says. Always put your cell number instead of your home number and never include home address information.
• Dress children in "away from home" clothing. Brightly colored clothing makes it easy for others to help you find your child. Dver says yellow or green works best because other bright colors like orange or hot pink are too common. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises that children should not wear clothing or carry items labeled with their names.
• Check park or venue information beforehand. It’s a good idea to consult venue Web sites to familiarize yourself with lost-child codes or print maps to note information booths and plan ahead for family meeting spots.
• Carry a recent photo and description of each child. On the back of the photo, put your cell number and a physical description of your child. "When a parent loses their child, they get Jell-O for brains," Dver says. "They don’t remember their own name, let alone their kid’s name and all the details of their children." The photograph helps a hysterical parent communicate and gives others a visual of the child.
• Teach your child to ask an authority figure or another mom for help. "We really want people to be talking to people who work at the park," McBride says. She adds that a mom should be a default person if the child cannot identify a police officer or someone who works at the venue. Children can easily pick out another mom in a crowd and this is one non-authority figure you do want them to talk to if they become lost.
• Shut up, don’t delay and don’t stray. Calling out your child’s name repeatedly alerts other event attendants, including potential abductors, that you don’t know where your child is. Immediately report your concern to a person in authority, but try not to stray too far from the spot where your child was lost. Chances are he or she is still nearby.
• Celebrate when reunited with your child. Resist your instinct to chastise your child when they return. Children may opt to stay away if lost again out of fear of punishment.
Dver urges parents to teach their children a plan of action, saying it’s the best way to ensure the safe return of a child if lost. "Every kid does get lost," she says. "So talk to your kid about it."
Taniesha Robinson is a Chicago Parent intern and a junior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.