How Does A Criminal Investigator Keep His Teenage Daughter Safe?

Mike White is a criminal investigator in South Dakota, currently in his 24th year of law enforcement. He’s been a single parent for 13 years, ever since his daughter was six.

We caught up with him to ask for advice on the best way we can keep our kids safe from not only the IRL threats but the online ones, too.

What are the biggest dangers teens face today?

The biggest dangers teens face today are what they've always faced in the past: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and bullying. The difference is that now, there are more temptations and issues appear a lot earlier than you think.

An example, I was twelve or thirteen years old when I first heard classmates talking about alcohol and drugs and partying in school, and I had no idea what they were talking about, compared to my daughter who was just seven.

My experience in law enforcement has involved a lot of responding to and investigating sexual assault, alcohol and drug violations, traffic fatalities, child sexual abuse and acts of violence, etc. Bullying has also become more prevalent in today's youth. My daughter experienced it in grade school and at the time it was addressed it with school staff. I thought was the end of it, aided by the fact that my career allowed us to move several times and experience new beginnings. However, she later told me that it continued well after I thought it was addressed, and occurred in various forms at the new schools.

The fact is that your child learns a lot more in school than just the curriculum. They’re exposed to drugs, alcohol, bullying and all the side-effects that come with it like depression, suicide and stunted social development that can follow them well into adulthood.

Parents worry – that just goes with the territory. But are most of those worries justified?

Parents have every reason to be concerned about the safety of their children in today's world. I worked in law enforcement long enough to know for a fact that the world can be a scary place. I also believe the world is equally, if not more beautiful. The trick is educating your children and giving them the knowledge to know the difference.

Education begins with topics like Stranger Danger and on to Good Touch, Bad Touch as it relates to relatives, family friends or strangers, and of course drug and alcohol awareness. Teach them about the dangers of drinking and driving. Teach them sex education. In my opinion and experience, education is the best defense for today's youth.

Teaching kids about safety can make the world less scary for your children and with education comes confidence and better judgment. They will still have a decision to make, and of course mistakes will still be made. But education definitely increases the chances of a well-informed decision.

Looking back at my youth, my parents never spoke of drug or alcohol use or even sex. There was education and awareness in school, but at home, some things were never talked about. Once I became a parent, I made promises to myself and to her that she would be informed and aware of everything. In today's world, these types of conversations need to start at home with the parent.

It seems kids have less freedom today, than in the past. And yet they’re more connected to the world that even before. How do you deal with that?

As a parent and law enforcement officer, I appreciate the many, ever-changing challenges parents face in giving their children independence. I agree that in today's world, parents let their kids do less than before.

Any parent can compare their youth to their child's, and they will see an obvious difference in their safety. The things I did, from hitchhiking, leaving my house in the morning to play with friends and not coming back until night time, to learning to drive a car when I was ten… I could not imagine letting my daughter do at those same ages.

I am stricter in a sense than my parents were – my daughter did less than I did in my youth. But we also did more as a family than I did with my parents, which has brought us even closer together.

Is there a “right age” for kids to be allowed to do things on their own, like walking to and from school or taking public transportation?

I think it varies with the child. A parent will know how much responsibility they can give their child and adjust accordingly, especially if there's more than one child. Older children usually have the responsibility of looking out for their younger siblings whereas an only child typically gets fewer responsibilities. So there are different factors to consider.

Preparing them can be as simple walking the route with them, teaching them to walk with a group, changing routes to and from school if possible, speaking with neighbors, and designating a safe house in case of an emergency. Giving them a cell phone and calling or texting once they leave home and get to school, and vice versa, is always a good idea.

Any tips for teaching kids street smarts?

Always, always, always be aware of your surroundings! Travel in groups. If there's a party situation, have a Designated Friend who looks out for the group. Strength in numbers, as they say, is always a deterrent to those with ill intent. In a solo situation, same rules. Keep in touch with parents or a friend that the parents can contact.

Something equally important and simple to practice with your kids: memory games. From I Spy, License Bingo, or any game you can invent that causes them to rely on memory and pay attention to their surroundings are always good to practice.

I invented a memory-strengthening game that we played whenever we were in the car. I would randomly ask what color the car was, the license plate number, how many occupants, gender of occupants, hair color, glasses, earrings, sunglasses, clothes, etc. You would be surprised what you can train yourself to remember even after seeing it for a second or two.

What about tips for teens at parties, especially girls?

Strength in numbers, a wingman who looks out for each other, and rotate that responsibility at each party. Never leave a drink unattended. There are different drink test kits to make sure that your drink hasn’t been tampered with.

I've given my daughter a drink test kit – it comes with a small pepper spray canister and litmus paper to test for GHB (aka roofie, the date rape drug) and ketamine in alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Dip the paper, and it changes color if drugs are detected.

Do you recommend any apps for safety?

Activate their Find My iPhone/GPS locator. Get the Amber Alert app to receive notifications of abducted children, in the event you or your child can help. Speaking up as a witness and reporting a crime is incredibly important. Not many people want to get involved these days, but getting involved can save someone's life or save them from a traumatic event. The Sex Offender app is also good for insights into where sex offenders live in your area.

Is there any defense training that you consider helpful?

Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, karate, kendo, aikido can all be useful. The plus is they also teach self discipline, confidence, and tolerance. I taught my daughter several sensitive pressure points, control tactics and self defense moves as well as firearms safety and instruction.

When it comes to actual weapons, I think it's something that should be discussed between the parent and child. A pocket knife, as long as it falls within local/legal standards (know your local laws), can be very useful in any situation. A Swiss army knife with various attachments such as scissors, a screwdriver, bottle opener, etc. can be useful as well. Pepper spray is an obvious choice. Anything can be used as a weapon: car keys, a pen, pencil, fingernails and they can really work when applied to pressure points. But you also have to discuss the possibility that the weapon can be taken away and used against your kids, and how to counter that in the form of self defense.

More importantly, the best weapon in my mind is being observant, keeping your wits, and knowing when and how to apply them.

Any other advice for parents?

You need to make a point of knowing all the passwords to their email, apps, and social accounts – make sure they share their location with you on their phone, and check on them randomly. Newer cars have similar apps where you can track their location. If the car is older, there are various products such as Tile that you can attach to the car locate if needed.

But most importantly, be upfront and tell your child the reason why you’re doing this: It’s for their safety.

Honesty and education are the best for preparation. Knowledge and awareness increase safety and confidence. The world is a beautiful place – it's the people with ill intent you gotta watch out for.

What are some of your best advice when it comes to kids’ safety? Share your tips with us!

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