What If?

Your Child Dis­ap­pears While Trav­el­ing?

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - Story By Tim MacWelch Il­lus­tra­tions by Jor­dan Lance

Your Child Dis­ap­pears While Trav­el­ing?

One minute, she was there — hold­ing my hand, just like she al­ways did. And the next minute she was gone. The sick­en­ing panic be­gan to rise within me, like a surge of nau­sea — but far worse. I whirled in cir­cles look­ing for her, but in the press of peo­ple, there was no trace. As soon as my wife saw the look of fear on my face and re­al­ized our child wasn’t stand­ing with us, she be­gan to shout our daugh­ter’s name. But over the din of the busy pub­lic square, no re­sponse could be heard. Our child was gone. In this in­stall­ment of RECOIL OFFGRID’s What If?, the edi­tors asked us to ex­plain our own ap­proach to one of the most hor­ri­fy­ing sce­nar­ios that a par­ent can face — a po­ten­tial ab­duc­tion. Con­tin­u­ing our new for­mat, the au­thors ex­plain what we’d per­son­ally do, should we find our­selves in this type of emer­gency sit­u­a­tion. As a par­ent, this has been one of the most un­set­tling What If ’s that RECOIL OFFGRID has for­mu­lated.

The Setup: You’ve fi­nally made good on your promise to take your spouse to Europe, and as it hap­pens, you’re tak­ing your young child along too. You’ve planned an un­for­get­table va­ca­tion to­gether, and you’re look­ing for­ward to giv­ing your spouse an un­for­get­table an­niver­sary.

The Com­pli­ca­tion: While vis­it­ing Paris dur­ing a walk­ing tour you pre­ar­ranged, you’re ven­tur­ing down the CHAMPSÉLYSÉES with your group when you stop to lis­ten to the guide’s spiel on the Arc de Tri­om­phe. Your 6-year-old lets go of your hand for a mo­ment, and you think noth­ing of it. Only a minute goes by while you’re watch­ing the tour guide. You look down to dis­cover your child is no longer next to you.

As you search through the group and the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity, you can­not find your child. What do you do? Did they just get dis­tracted by some­thing and are aim­lessly wan­der­ing some­where you can’t see them? Were they ab­ducted by as­sailants stalk­ing the tour group? What’s your re­sponse plan? There’s no way to de­ter­mine for sure what hap­pened, and you’re los­ing pre­cious time.

If you were home you’d call 911 or ask peo­ple in the vicin­ity. But you’re in a for­eign coun­try where res­i­dents may be un­friendly to­ward Amer­i­cans, your child doesn’t have their own phone, you don’t know any French, and peo­ple in the area might speak lim­ited English. How do you deal with this? Con­tact the po­lice? At­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate with the rest of your tour group and mo­bi­lize them? Do you search with only your spouse? Try to call the child’s name?


As any par­ent knows, a sim­ple trip to the gro­cery store with a child in tow can quickly turn into a night­mare with­out some fore­sight; so a trip over­seas def­i­nitely en­tails some heavy pre­plan­ning. To avoid any hic­cups, I’d fo­cus on four ar­eas:

Re­search and more re­search: Months be­fore we even set foot on an Air France flight, I’d be­gin to metic­u­lously gather data about our French des­ti­na­tion. Aside from the usual ho­tel and restau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions, I’d seek out spe­cific data on the tourist lo­ca­tions we in­tend to visit. I’d want to know when the busiest times are, if there are any sketchy neigh­bor­hoods nearby, if there are travel ad­vi­sories for the area, and the lo­ca­tion of im­por­tant es­tab­lish­ments like po­lice sta­tions, hos­pi­tals, and the U.S. Em­bassy.

I’d pick up a phys­i­cal map of the ar­eas and mark all th­ese lo­ca­tions on my phys­i­cal copy, then also store the in­for­ma­tion in my smart­phone. Since I al­ways carry a notepad, I’d also jot down rel­e­vant num­bers like po­lice, ho­tel, etc,. to keep on my per­son should I need to dial a num­ber from an­other phone. To round out my re­search, I’d fa­mil­iar­ize my­self with lo­cal cus­toms and eti­quette so my fam­ily could bet­ter as­sim­i­late into the lo­cal cul­ture.

Bring on the tech: Dur­ing the re­search phase I’d also tackle tech­nol­ogy. My first step would be to call my par­tic­u­lar cell phone car­rier and ver­ify whether they of­fer in­ter­na­tional ser­vice and en­sure I was placed on that plan. I’d also in­quire as to whether my cell phone would work over­seas. If not,

I’d pur­chase an un­locked phone that would al­low me to make and re­ceive calls and texts while in France. While I’m track­ing down techre­lated in­for­ma­tion, I’d also take the time to re­search GPS de­vices for my child. Though we heav­ily em­pha­size stick­ing to­gether, the re­al­ity is that some­times kids wan­der off. To en­sure we keep tabs on our 6-year-old, I’d pur­chase a good GPS lo­ca­tor that we can use while in France to track his lo­ca­tion should we be­come sep­a­rated.

Learn the lan­guage: Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the abil­ity to un­der­stand ba­sic con­cepts and words is vi­tal when trav­el­ing over­seas. While I don’t ex­pect my fam­ily to be­come na­tive speak­ers overnight, I’d in­sist that we start learn­ing French months be­fore the ac­tual trip. I’d most likely sign us up for ac­tual classes, but if cost or sched­ul­ing proved too dif­fi­cult, we’d, at the very least, use soft­ware or on­line tu­to­ri­als. Set­ting time aside each day to study, I’d make it a pri­or­ity for us to know how to com­mu­ni­cate on a ba­sic level. In ad­di­tion to ac­tu­ally study­ing, I’d in­vest in a pocket phrase book/dic­tio­nary equipped with ba­sic and com­monly used phrases for us to keep on our per­son while in France.

This would prove use­ful if we need some­thing spe­cific and are con­vers­ing with a French speaker who knows lit­tle English.

Prep­ping my child: One of the most crit­i­cal steps in the pre­plan process would be prep­ping my child. Though vis­it­ing France would be an ex­cit­ing and fun-filled ad­ven­ture for him, it does mean lift­ing him out of his nor­mal sched­ule and rou­tine. Do­ing so might cause some un­pre­dictable be­hav­ior that I’d want to mit­i­gate be­fore step­ping on French soil. We’d start by in­clud­ing him in the French lessons, teach­ing him ba­sic words and phrases to help him com­mu­ni­cate. Know­ing how to tell some­one who he is, who his par­ents are, and key phrases like “Help me” or “I’m lost” would be vi­tal should he be­come sep­a­rated or one of us be­come hurt or in­jured while over­seas.

We’d also make a point to con­tinue re­view­ing our pol­icy on “bad guys” and how to de­fend one’s self — in­for­ma­tion we’ve al­ready cov­ered with our child but that we want to con­tin­u­ally re­fresh. Since he’s just 6 years old, wield­ing a gun or knife isn’t re­ally prac­ti­cal, so I’d fo­cus on en­cour­ag­ing him to use ba­sic self-de­fense skills to ward off po­ten­tial kid­nap­pers. Crim­i­nals rarely want at­ten­tion drawn to them­selves so if my child cre­ates enough of a dis­trac­tion, he might prove too dif­fi­cult for a kid­nap­per to move to an­other lo­ca­tion — an act that likely leads to death.

To prep him for what he might face in the real world, we’d role play to al­low him to prac­tice yelling our names, scream­ing, bit­ing, scratch­ing/goug­ing, kick­ing, and hit­ting. Though we reg­u­larly re­in­force what to do if he be­comes lost, we’d cer­tainly amp up those con­ver­sa­tions. We’d re­view that it’s best to stay put and yell for mom or dad, us­ing our real names, un­til we lo­cate him. If we’re nowhere in sight, we’d re­in­force that he should look for po­lice of­fi­cers or se­cu­rity guards to ask for help. Lastly, I’d pur­chase a whis­tle for my child to wear while in France. Since it can be heard more clearly over street noise, we’d prac­tice us­ing it if some­one tries to grab him and run.

On Site

Af­ter a long flight try­ing to en­ter­tain a 6-year-old, I’d be ready to kick back at the ho­tel for a bit. Be­fore slip­ping into a jet-lagged coma, I’d take a lit­tle time to at­tend to some de­tails. First, I’d con­firm that our cell phones do, in fact, work in France. If they con­sis­tently show no sig­nal, we’d pur­chase burner phones to use while in coun­try.

Once we got some rest and be­fore we headed out on our Champs-Élysées ad­ven­ture, I’d snap a pic­ture of my child on my phone. This pic­ture could prove use­ful if he be­came sep­a­rated, with the most up-to-date in­for­ma­tion on what he looks like and what he’s wear­ing. Speak­ing of clothes, I’d also out­fit him in bright col­ors or pat­terns, such as or­anges and lime greens, so he’d bet­ter stick out in a crowd and thus be eas­ier to spot.

We’d re­view safety in­for­ma­tion with our child, in­clud­ing what to do if he be­came lost (look for po­lice of­fi­cers in the area) and what to do if some­one tried to take him (fight and draw at­ten­tion). I’d also whip out the whis­tle for him to wear around his neck as well as the GPS lo­ca­tor watch I bought to track him. Be­fore we left the ho­tel, I’d ver­ify the GPS sys­tem is work­ing prop­erly with my phone to make track­ing my child eas­ier and ef­fi­cient.

Fi­nally be­fore head­ing out, I’d equip my son with a sliver of pa­per from my handy notepad with his name and age in ad­di­tion to our in­for­ma­tion on it. This pa­per would serve as an im­por­tant tool should he be­come too ner­vous to re­call his French and

un­able to com­mu­ni­cate who he is and who his par­ents are.

Once we ar­rived at the Champs, my hus­band and I would, once again, re­it­er­ate that our child should al­ways have “hands on” mommy or daddy and that, at no time, should he wan­der off or let go of us. We’d also, again, re­view what to do if he be­came lost or some­one at­tempted to take him some­where else.

While we gather with our tour group, I’d take spe­cial note of the area. I’d look for any in­di­vid­u­als that seem out of place or as if they’re pay­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion to my fam­ily in par­tic­u­lar. If any­thing seems off, I’d alert my hus­band so we could keep an eye on them and a tighter grasp on our child. This aware­ness would con­tinue through­out the tour.

As we pre­pare to em­bark on our tour, we’d want to also take some time to fa­mil­iar­ize our­selves with our tour group and guide. We’d look for any­one within the group who speaks English and suss out any po­ten­tial dual French-English speak­ers. In­tro­duc­ing our­selves would be the eas­i­est way to as­cer­tain that in­for­ma­tion and be­come friendly with those we’ll be spend­ing the next few hours with. We’d need to take some time to in­tro­duce our­selves to the tour guide. While I’d have se­lected a tour with a dual FRENCHENGLISH–SPEAK­ING tour guide, we’d need to check out just how much English he/she knows so that if we need any­thing we know the level at which we’ll have to com­mu­ni­cate.


A par­ent’s worst night­mare — what started out as the trip of a life­time has quickly de­volved into panic as our child has gone miss­ing. De­spite the fact that we’ve dis­cussed at length that he should never let go of mommy or daddy’s hand, he’s no longer be­side us. We’re left won­der­ing whether he sim­ply be­came dis­tracted and walked off or if more sin­is­ter forces are at play.

Af­ter call­ing his name and quickly search­ing our nearby vicin­ity, we’d make the de­ci­sion to alert the tour guide and group. Put­ting those French classes and our dic­tio­nar­ies to use, my hus­band would com­mu­ni­cate to the tour leader and group that our child is miss­ing. While he was in­form­ing our tour guide, I’d grab my cell phone to call the po­lice. Let’s say it had no sig­nal in the area — I’d want to lo­cate a work­ing cell phone as soon as pos­si­ble.

When we ar­rived on site, I found the English speak­ers in my tour group. I’d im­me­di­ately ask them to help me lo­cate a phone and start sweep­ing the area for signs of my child. Even if my phone has no sig­nal, it does carry a vi­tal piece of in­for­ma­tion — the pic­ture I took ear­lier. I’d pass the pic­ture around the group while I con­tin­ued to call out for my child and track down a phone.

Once we got a work­ing phone, we’d use the notepad I carry with emer­gency num­bers to dial lo­cal po­lice. We’d want to re­port our child miss­ing as soon as pos­si­ble. If our child turns up nearby, a sim­ple case of wan­der­ing off, we can sim­ply apol­o­gize for his mis­be­hav­ior with just mild em­bar­rass­ment. On the other hand, if he has been taken, quick po­lice re­sponse and a perime­ter might save my child’s life.

While my hus­band is work­ing with the tour group and mem­bers be­gin spread­ing out in search of our child, I’d look at my de­vice to see if I can track our child via the GPS watch I had slipped on his lit­tle wrist ear­lier. Best-case sce­nario, it’d alert me to his lo­ca­tion nearby; how­ever, if we couldn’t es­tab­lish his prox­im­ity, we’d re­lay the GPS in­for­ma­tion to po­lice as we fol­lowed the tracker. Dur­ing this time, we’d keep eyes and ears peeled for any signs of strug­gle in the crowd. Know­ing that we taught our child to fight back, cre­ate a scene, and cause as much noise and dis­rup­tion as pos­si­ble, I’d be lis­ten­ing for my name or the whis­tle and watch­ing for gawk­ing crowds or signs of dis­tress.

As­sum­ing he hasn’t turned up by the time po­lice ar­rive on scene, I’d pro­duce the pic­ture of my child I snapped that morn­ing. With po­lice now on hand, my hus­band would call the em­bassy and no­tify them of the sit­u­a­tion, hop­ing to be granted ad­di­tional re­sources to lo­cate our child.


A miss­ing child is a ter­ri­fy­ing ordeal for all par­ties in­volved, but pre­plan­ning to elim­i­nate cer­tain vari­ables as well as stay­ing aware and re­spond­ing quickly to his dis­ap­pear­ance would max­i­mize our chances to bring him back safe and sound.


Do My Home­work: Plan­ning and re­search are a vi­tal part of all forms of pre­pared­ness. So the plan­ning for a trip so far from home would be much more ex­ten­sive than the plan­ning for a lo­cal get­away. I’d en­deavor to find out as much in­for­ma­tion about higher crime ar­eas in Paris, then pick a ho­tel and plan ac­tiv­i­ties in a “safer” part of town.

We’d also take the time to learn a lit­tle bit of the lan­guage. Yes, English is a com­mon lan­guage in Europe, but it’d be fool­ish to ex­pect ev­ery­one to speak a lit­tle English. To in­crease our chances of suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­spite the lan­guage bar­rier, I’d pick up an English to French dic­tio­nary. Any trav­eler should know more than just “Where’s the bath­room?” in the lo­cal lan­guage.

Wher­ever you travel, it’s smart to learn the words for “yes,” “no,” “please,” “thank you,” “ex­cuse me,” “hello,” “good­bye,” “I don’t un­der­stand,” “I’m lost,” “Do you speak English?”, and of course, “Where’s the bath­room?” And make the ef­fort to pro­nounce your new words cor­rectly — it re­ally helps.

Set Up My Phone For Travel: The or­di­nary mo­bile phone may not work “as is” if taken to an­other coun­try, but that can usu­ally be reme­died. Be­fore the trip, I’d visit my lo­cal phone car­rier store and ask for help. A great deal of con­fu­sion can be avoided by work­ing face-to-face with a pro­fes­sional. There are sev­eral is­sues that can pre­vent a phone from work­ing abroad, and a knowl­edge­able cus­tomer ser­vice rep should be able to han­dle them all. They can tell me whether the phone is locked or un­locked, if the car­rier has a part­ner in the city and re­gion I’ll be trav­el­ing to, and so many other tech is­sues.

I’d also look into the pos­si­bil­ity of pur­chas­ing a lo­cal SIM card when I ar­rive in Paris, France. This may be much cheaper than buy­ing an in­ter­na­tional phone plan or pay­ing the high price for roam­ing. And speak­ing of phones, we’d need some phone num­bers to call if we ran into trou­ble. I’d write down the lo­cal emer­gency num­bers in Paris, and, just as im­por­tant, I’d get the num­ber for the U.S. Em­bassy there.

School My Child: The lessons of “stranger dan­ger” tend to take away some of a child’s in­no­cence, but th­ese are nec­es­sary lessons in to­day’s messed-up world. Child ab­duc­tions are a painful re­al­ity that must be faced by to­day’s par­ents. The best way to face this is­sue is to give our kids the tools they need to rec­og­nize and re­act to a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. And while we don’t want to make chil­dren para­noid, they re­ally should be pre­pared for dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions.

Teach your lit­tle ones (and even your teens) that they should never go with a stranger, re­gard­less of what the per­son says. They should never get into a ve­hi­cle, go into a room, or en­ter a build­ing with a stranger. Fi­nally, chil­dren should be taught to lis­ten to their in­stincts. If any adult (even fam­ily friends and ac­quain­tances) asks them to keep se­crets, go with them un­ex­pect­edly, or do any­thing that makes them un­com­fort­able, the child should shout “No” loudly and go for help.

Go­ing a bit fur­ther, chil­dren don’t al­ways need con­ven­tional weapons to de­fend them­selves. They can be taught self-de­fense tac­tics (scream­ing, bit­ing, goug­ing eyes) that can be used dur­ing an at­tempted ab­duc­tion. And when the emer­gency isn’t an ab­duc­tion, just a sim­ple mat­ter of get­ting lost, we teach our chil­dren to stay put.

A sim­ple set of in­struc­tions (like stand still and start count­ing) will give them some­thing to fo­cus upon (be­sides fear), and stand­ing still makes them eas­ier to find. Fi­nally, if your child re­al­izes they’re in trou­ble, in­struct them to go to a uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cer or sim­i­lar law keeper. You can even spec­ify that they go to a fe­male law en­force­ment pro­fes­sional, who may be nat­u­rally less in­tim­i­dat­ing to a lit­tle child than a male of fi­cer.

On Site

Once we reached Paris, my fam­ily made our way to the ho­tel to re­lax. Our phones were work­ing, thanks to our ef­forts to ready them for in­ter­na­tional us­age. Due to the flight time and the short win­ter days, we ar­rived late in the evening, so we de­cided to get a good night’s sleep be­fore we be­gan our ex­plo­ration of the city. While the girls were get­ting ready for bad, I slipped out to the ho­tel’s lit­tle gift shop, where I bought an over­priced lo­cal map.

Since I had no fa­mil­iar­ity with the area, this map would be a key part of nav­i­gat­ing through the city. Bring­ing it back to the room, along with some in­ter­est­ing-look­ing French snacks, I then stud­ied the street lay­out care­fully. This map would go in our day­pack as a ref­er­ence, but we’d try to avoid walk­ing around with it. Stand­ing there with a map would be a dead give­away we were tourists, and that could draw at­ten­tion that we didn’t want. Af­ter toss­ing and turn­ing on the hard small bed (and sus­pect­ing that bed­bugs were bit­ing me), we ate a cold and wildly over­priced room ser­vice break­fast.

Dur­ing the meal, we went over the ho­tel name and ad­dress with our child, as well as mom’s phone num­ber just in case we be­came sep­a­rated. Ev­ery child should know at least one par­ent’s phone num­ber by heart, start­ing at the youngest age pos­si­ble. We also made sure she was car­ry­ing a card in her pocket with the ho­tel name and phone num­ber, and her name and our phone num­bers. As we left the ho­tel, I grabbed one of the ho­tel brochures for our daugh­ter to carry. It had a pic­ture of the build­ing on the front, as well as the ad­dress and phone num­ber. I folded it in half for her and she slid the brochure into her pocket.


From the first mo­ment we lost track of our child, my wife and I tried our hard­est to swal­low the panic that’d be threat­en­ing to over­whelm us. With our child miss­ing, and since we didn’t know if it was a kid­nap­ping or just a lost child, we in­formed the tour group leader and ap­proached the near­est au­thor­i­ties pa­trolling the area. And we con­tin­ued to fol­low any par­ent’s in­stinct — call­ing for our child — but we knew that a law en­force­ment BOLO (be-on-the-look-out) would be even more help­ful than our fran­tic search­ing.

With the English-to-French dic­tio­nary in hand, I com­mu­ni­cated “lost” and “child” to the first po­lice of­fi­cers we found in the square. Since our child had the ho­tel in­for­ma­tion, my wife de­cided to go back to the ho­tel, and I stayed in the park with a few of­fi­cers and the tour group leader. Af­ter a very tense 15 min­utes, my mo­bile phone be­gan to ring. I was in shock from the whole ordeal, so the phone rang a few times be­fore I was re­spon­sive enough to an­swer it. The call came from my wife. She was at the ho­tel with a very nice young fe­male po­lice of­fi­cer — and our daugh­ter — who had left my side to look at pi­geons and got­ten dis­ori­ented. It turned out that when the of­fi­cer saw a lone child cry­ing and look­ing around in a panic — she in­ter­vened.

Our up­set child didn’t re­mem­ber the info card in her pocket, just the brochure from the ho­tel, but that was all that the of­fi­cer needed to see. Over­whelmed with re­lief and grat­i­tude, I told the of­fi­cers and the tour group leader, and I ran back to the ho­tel. My wife, my daugh­ter, and I held each other for sev­eral min­utes — so re­lieved that this had only been a “lost child” sit­u­a­tion and noth­ing more sin­is­ter. And af­ter an­other chat with the po­lice, we headed back to our room to re­gain our com­po­sure and re­think our plans to visit crowded places in Paris.


When the worst has hap­pened — your loved one is miss­ing — what can you do to help? The first and most im­por­tant thing you can do to help your loved one is to main­tain your calm as best you can in the ter­ri­fy­ing sit­u­a­tion and con­tact the au­thor­i­ties. If the in­ci­dent has hap­pened in your home coun­try, of course you’d con­tact the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties (and fed­eral law en­force­ment, if ab­duc­tion was sus­pected). But if the is­sue has oc­curred abroad, try to reach your em­bassy or con­sulate to seek help. In France and most other coun­tries, you can reach out to the U.S. Em­bassy and ask for Amer­i­can Cit­i­zen Ser­vices. They can co­or­di­nate with lo­cal law en­force­ment and any Amer­i­can FBI of­fices in the area.

If (for some strange rea­son) you can’t get help from your own coun­try­men, then you’ll have to rely on the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties or lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fice. Who­ever ends up as­sist­ing you, be pa­tient with those who are help­ing you and don’t ex­pect a quick res­o­lu­tion to this per­sonal cri­sis.

Even though the odds of your child be­ing kid­napped by a stranger are very low in the U.S., France, and most coun­tries, it’d be very nerve-rack­ing to won­der “what if” for even a short time while your child is lost.

For more in­for­ma­tion on pro­tect­ing your fam­ily, visit the web­site of the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren at www.miss­ingkids.com.

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