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Julie Baumgardner

People across America have been paying close attention to news about missing teen Elizabeth Thomas and her alleged kidnapper, Tad Cummins. With a manhunt underway, authorities continue to uncover evidence of an inappropriate romantic relationship between the girl and her 50-year-old teacher. Experts now believe Cummins had been grooming the student for a while.

This is a parent's worst nightmare. And unfortunately, headlines like these have become far too frequent. Every day, hundreds of thousands of parents entrust their children to teachers, coaches and youth ministers. The vast majority of these people truly have a heart to help children. There are some bad apples in the mix, however, which makes things very complicated.

No parent wants to believe this could happen to their child. But how do you help your child guard against something like this without scaring them?

According to Kidpower International, an organization dedicated to providing empowering and effective child protection, positive communication and personal safety skills for all ages and abilities, there are four strategies parents can use to help prevent these types of situations.

  •  Put safety first. The safety and self-esteem of a child is more important than anyone's embarrassment, inconvenience or offense. If you suspect there is a safety problem involving children of any age, take personal responsibility and address it. This means speaking up persistently and widely until someone effectively takes action. Young people in abusive situations need help and protection.
  •  Make sure you know what others are doing with your kids. The reality is, some predators create opportunities to be alone with children by doing wonderful things with and for them. Most of them will seem like really nice people with excellent reputations. Don't just trust people because they are part of a reputable organization or because they are family. Trust your intuition. If something feels uncomfortable, speak up. When in doubt, check it out.
  •  LISTEN to your children, and teach them not to keep unsafe secrets. Most abusers cultivate strong relationships with children before anything sexual takes place. Encourage your child to talk to you often by asking supportive questions, being a good listener and not lecturing. Pay attention to what they say. Be very clear that secrets about problems, touch, favors, gifts someone gives them, photos or videos, privileges, time alone with anyone and games are not safe. It's crucial for them to tell you and other trusted adults instead of keeping secrets, even if it will upset or embarrass someone they care about.
  • Make sure you tell your children, "Even if you made a mistake or did something wrong, I will love you and help you. Please tell me about anyone whose behavior makes you uncomfortable, even if we really like this person, so we can figure out what to do to keep everyone safe."
  •  Prepare young people to take charge of their safety by practicing skills. One quick action can stop most abuse — pushing someone's hand away, ordering them to stop, leaving as soon as possible, resisting emotional coercion and telling. If children understand these safety rules and have had the chance to practice them in an age-appropriate way, they are more likely to use them if necessary.

An Instagram post from Elizabeth Thomas said, "Every Beauty needs her Beast to protect her from everything but him," credited to poet N.R. Hart.

Don't just assume your children know the signs of an inappropriate relationship or that they would for sure tell you about something that happened. Be proactive and teach them. Empowering them in such a way can help alleviate any fear they encounter.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy agency First Things First. Contact her at