It’s Not Always a Stranger That’s the Danger

Equipping Our Children

National Missing Children’s day is commemorated on May 25th to remember missing children and share about child abduction. The impact of a child gone missing is a harrowing reality that affects thousands of children each year, with a significant number of cases involving family members, caregivers, or other individuals known to the victims. This contradicts the popular notion that children are primarily abducted by strangers. Despite numerous efforts to safeguard children, many still fall victim to abduction. Reasons why children may go missing include running away, getting lost, becoming injured, or being abducted (Sedlak et al., 2017). In response, behavior analysts have dedicated years of research to find effective methods for teaching children and families about abduction prevention.

This blog provides an overview of one particular study conducted by me, one of Motivity’s very own Behavior Analysts, Chelsee Bznuni (Rodriguez) and my graduate advisor Dr. Marianne Jackson in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. This study explored the need for a systematic intervention to teach children with a diagnosis of autism to recognize and appropriately respond to a potential abductor, including individuals whom the child is familiar with.

The Challenges of Recognizing Potential Abductors

Conventional abduction prevention education often emphasizes the dangers posed by strangers, alone, which oversimplifies some of the more complex social interactions children experience on a daily basis. Children interact with a variety of adults, both familiar and unfamiliar, across various settings. To some extent, a child’s environment is set up with several motivating operations (MOs) that establish opportunities for them to make requests to adults.

For example in a school setting, a student may be required to ask a teacher for permission, assistance, clarity, or support. Furthermore, neurotypical and neurodivergent children may find it increasingly difficult to abstain from communicating with a potential perpetrator as they may struggle with interpreting some of the subtle environmental cues (i.e., cues around a person that inform them what is happening and how to respond) that can be derived from familiar and unfamiliar people creating some confusion between who is and isn’t a trusted adult (Krempa & McKinnon, 2002). Additionally, the allure of highly preferred items or activities has been known to entice children (e.g., ice cream, toys, animals, etc.), thus blurring their judgment and creating opportunities for abduction attempts. The lack of clear guidelines and effective interventions exacerbates the risk for children, warranting innovative and effective approaches to ensure their safety.

BST and IST as Effective Intervention Strategies

Previous research has shown that behavioral skills training (BST) combined with in situ training (IST) are effective methods for teaching neurotypical and neurodivergent children to reliably protect themselves against abduction lures from strangers (Johnson et al., 2005; Miltenberger & Olsen, 1996; Miltenberger et al., 2013; Poche et al., 1981; Rodriguez & Jackson, 2020; Vanselow & Hanley, 10 2014). BST is a comprehensive intervention approach involving instructions, modeling, rehearsal, and feedback; while IST extends these methods to natural settings. These methods have proven successful in equipping children with the necessary skills to identify and resist abduction attempts. With these tools, it is imperative that practitioners, researchers, and families address the research gap regarding efficient and systematic interventions that specifically address potential abduction situations presented by familiar adults and/or caregivers. 

Introducing the Safe-word Procedure

The focus of this study was to investigate the effects of teaching a safe-word procedure to five children with a diagnosis of autism using BST and IST. The BST session consisted of instructions on the importance of the participant’s safety, followed by a detailed explanation of what a safe-word is, who should know it, and when to ask for it.

Next the participants stated the two possible safety responses pertaining to a scenario: (a) ask for the safe-word, say “no” upon an incorrect response, run, and report the lure to a helping professional or caregiver; or (b) ask for the safe-word, acknowledge it was correct, leave with the trusted adult, and report the use of the safe-word to their caregiver. Their responses were coded as follows for a maximum score of 4 points: 

  • +1 point = for not leaving with the adult, initially
  • +1 point = if the child asked the adult for the safe-word within 5 seconds of the lure
  • +1 point = if the child responded correctly to the confederate’s knowledge of the safe-word (i.e., either left with the trusted adult or left the area from which the lure was presented)
  • +1 point = if the participant reported the lure to their parent/caregiver 

This response was evaluated across various lure-types: incentive, authoritative, general, and assistance and a number of confederates, some of whom were familiar adults. Following intervention, correct responding was maintained across 1-week, 1-month, and 2-month follow-ups for four out of five participants. The results of this study hold further implications for caregivers, educators, and public officials, as they provide valuable insights into effective methods for enhancing the safety of our nation's youth.

Empowering One Another to Better Protect our Children

Child abduction remains a distressing reality, with a considerable number of cases involving familiar adults, suggesting it is not enough to simply teach a child not to talk to strangers. The hope of this overview was to shed light on the challenges children face in distinguishing between trusted adults and potential abductors while providing information on one effective intervention that aims to bridge the existing gap in traditional intervention strategies. By equipping ourselves–and our children–with knowledge, raising awareness, and implementing preventative measures, we can significantly reduce the risk of this immeasurable crime. 


Johnson, B. M., Miltenberger, R. G., Egemo-Helm, K., Jostad, C. M., Flessner, C., & Gatheridge, B. (2005). Evaluation of behavioral skills training for teaching abduction-prevention skills to young children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38, 67-78.

Krempa, J., & McKinnon, K. (2002). Social skills solutions: A hands-on manual for teaching social skills to children with autism. New York, NY: DRL Books.

Miltenberger, R. G., Fogel, V. A., Beck, K. V., Koehler, S., Shayne, R., Noah, J., McFee, K., Perdomo, A., Chan, P., Simmons, D., & Godish, D. (2013). Efficacy of the stranger safety abduction-prevention program and parent-conducted in situ training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46, 817- 820.

Miltenberger, R. G., & Olsen, L. A. (1996). Abduction prevention training: A review of findings and issues for future children. Education and Treatment of Children, 19, 69-82.

Poche, C., Brouwer, R., & Swearingen, M. (1981). Teaching self-protection to young children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 14, 169-176.

Rodriguez, C. N., & Jackson, M. L. (2020). A safe-word intervention for abduction prevention in children with autism spectrum disorders. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 13, 872–882.

Sedlack, A. J., Finkelhor, D., Hammer, H., & Schultz, D. J. (2017). “National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview,” OJJDP, U.S. Department of Justice.

Vanselow, N. R., & Hanley, G. P. (2014). An evaluation of computerized behavioral skills training to teach safety skills to young children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47, 1-19.

Chelsee Bznuni, M.A., BCBA
Customer Success Consultant