Safety Tips from Rossana Capuano, Former Police Officer, to Protect Your Kids

Keeping our kids safe never goes out of style, but the dangers and the methods of combating them sure do. How can we hope to keep up?

Rossana Capuano, who is the mother of two adult children, and grandma to an eight-year-old girl, has seen it all. Over the decades, there have been leaps and bounds in technology – which is both good and bad. But there’s one thing that doesn’t change: common sense. That, she says, is a child’s best defense.

She was a police officer with the City of Pasadena in Southern California for nine years. She worked Youth and Family Services, patrol, Detectives’ Unit, and Community Outreach. Rossana was injured, so she retired from the force, but “I currently still work in law enforcement. I am in a civilian management position for The City of Fontana, and I’ve done that for about eight years.”

What is the biggest danger for children these days?

“I’d say it’s the prevalence of young girls being enticed into situations that are sexually-based – sharing photos of themselves online and via text, things like that. So it’s not really the internet [that’s to blame], it’s just that teenagers need a new awareness of boundaries and how that plays out online.

“I think a lot of our young girls have lost their sense of boundaries. The online world is all about sharing, about broadcasting yourself, posting pictures and so on…[like Mark Zuckerberg famously said,] ‘Privacy is no longer a social norm.’ There’s a lot of focus on sexuality online, and I think that’s a dangerous area when you’re dealing with young girls who are just exploring that side of themselves and trying to deal with issues of self-esteem at the same time.

“A lot of our cases are sexual molestation cases. A lot of our cases involve young teens and even teen-on-teen abuse. So many minors are sending suggestive pictures of themselves to friends or boyfriends, and then finding out later that they’ve been sent or forwarded to other people.”

How can we help kids from falling prey to online harassment and abuse?

“We really need to educate our children and to equip them with the tools that they need to be out in the world. And just how we send our kids to school with pens and pencils and whatever tools they need for class, the same applies when they’re going online or out into the world. Giving them enough information, based on their age and maturity level, is essential. When somebody hands their child a phone, you also have to give them the lessons that go with that phone. You can’t just hand them the phone and say ‘Here you go.’

“The more educated the child is with the dangers that are out there, the better choices they make. We don’t have to overplay it or sensationalize it, but we do need to let them know about real risks. Often as parents, we’re afraid to tell our kids, or don’t know how to speak to our kids about potential dangers – and then when they get pulled into something, it’s too late at that point.”

Aren’t there some watchdog type apps to help?

“There are actually a lot of apps that are good to have if you’re handing a child a phone, like My Mobile Watchdog. You can track online activity, limit usage, and if they’re driving there’s apps that can be downloaded that tell you where your child is driving, where they’re going, how fast they’re driving – not because we don’t trust them, it’s because we want to make sure that they’re safe. And that’s our first priority.

“We get a lot of kids that say parents don’t trust them, but if you turn it around, it’s not a trust issue with the kids, it’s because we don’t trust other people. We say, ‘We trust you, but there are a lot of other people who will take advantage of you and we want to make sure you’re safe.’”

How old should a child be before they can do certain things like walking to school alone?

“That’s a really hard question, because it really comes down to maturity. You’ve got eight-year-olds that are very mature, and you’ve got eight-year-olds that you wouldn’t let walk across the street to the neighbor’s house. But you also have to factor in the environment that you live in. If they’re crossing major streets, if they’re going to be walking past certain areas that may be considered a little bit more dangerous than others, those are things to think about.

“Before I let my kids walk to school by themselves, I walked the path they were walking. I went with them. I asked them questions and I would watch what they were doing and then I actually watched them walk to school a few times, because I wanted to catch them and correct any behavior that I found dangerous. It could be something as simple as crossing the street without looking both ways, or assuming that a car is going to stop at the red light. When they got home from school, I would say ‘Hey, you didn’t look both ways,’ so there were little things I wanted to instill to make sure they were safety-aware.

We would also role-play. I would ask, ‘If this happened right here, what would you do?’ and have the kids come up with solutions for different scenarios. ‘If you did get hit by a car, what would you do? If you saw someone get hit by a car, what would you do?’ So it’s making them aware of the dangers of walking to school, but also equipping them with the tools to overcome potential problems without scaring them.”

What are the basic guidelines for letting kids stay at home alone for short periods of time?

“I went out multiple times on home calls where somebody would say a child was being left home alone, and the first thing I asked was their age. And I would go out and ask the child, ‘What do you do if someone’s banging on the door and you don’t know them?’ And they would say, call their mom or call 911 or something – and I would walk out sometimes thinking, ‘This child is okay being home alone.’ But normally we’re looking for double digits when we’re talking about kids being home alone. Children under ten or eleven years old – anybody under that age, you still look at it as too young because their maturity level is not there.

“But there can be exceptions. I went to a home where there was a nine-year-old being on her own for a span of two hours, but they were very close to their neighbors and she knew who to call and she had direct contact with her mom. So those were the factors I would look at – does this child know what to do if something happens? Are they allowed to cook, are they allowed to have friends over, etc?”

Has crime actually increased, or are we just hearing more about it?

“When I was growing up, it was a different world, but there was still crime and kids did get injured. Now, the same media that is giving us this great information and great tools to keep an eye on our kids, is also feeding us all these horrible crimes that occur and now we’re terrified it’s going to happen to our kids.

“One of the things my granddaughter wears is a wrist phone. Ours is a Gizmo from Verizon. We didn’t give it to her to make phone calls. We’re very restrictive on who she can call, there are certain people who are programmed in there and there are certain texts she can send out, but I can pull it up and see where she is. It’s great, because the sense of security it gives you, knowing you can pull it up and find out where they are or where they’ve been. When she goes to a friend’s house I can call her and find out, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you at home? Why are you there and not here?’ And it’s not because I want to catch her doing something wrong, it’s to know she is safe.

“And in the worst-case scenario, if something does happen and a child is abducted, that could prove to be a valuable tool in finding them. Whether they’re abducted or they get lost, you’ve got that tool that says, ‘They were in this area’ and they’re easily traceable.”

What else can we do to keep our little ones out of trouble?

“I think it always goes back to awareness. Children need to be taught awareness of their surroundings. The most important tool, and this goes for anybody, is using your ears and your eyes and your intuition. What you see and what you hear can’t be discounted. You’ve got kids that are on their phones and looking down and not paying attention to their surroundings – and having come from law enforcement – I can tell you, that’s the person that’s going to be victimized. Somebody can come up, steal their purse or steal their phone, and there’s no opportunity for that teenager to respond because they didn’t see it coming.

“I used to work with a group of teens in community outreach and one of the things we always taught them was to be aware of their surroundings. Always be aware of where you can run if something happens. Which direction you’re going to run? If someone starts chasing you in the middle of the street, where are you going to run? Look for escape routes. What would I do here, how would I get out? If I got trapped in my home would I jump out the window? Can I open the window? It’s things like that. It all comes back to language and preparation. And if we prepare our kids for situations, when something bad does happen, they’ll have the instincts ingrained to react accordingly.”

Does this apply to older kids, too?

“Absolutely! Teaching awareness needs to be consistent and it needs to evolve as your child gets older because the dangers are going to be a little bit different. Going out to a party, especially young women, need to be aware that someone could put something in their drink. The dangers change but the need for awareness doesn’t.”

How can we as parents be more alert and in tune?

“Children and young people have very good instincts, but as adults, sometimes we take that and we alter it for them. Sometimes we’re focused on manners, for example, and can say something like, ‘Go and give Uncle Joe a hug,’ even when the child doesn’t want to. We don’t honor our children in those times and so we tell them to stop trusting their instincts when it comes the sake of being polite.

“So now we’ve got these young girls that are in situations where they’re uncomfortable, and they must have a little bit of instinct, because when I’ve interviewed them [after something bad happened], they always say, ‘He gave me a bad feeling.’ And the question always is, ‘Well why did you didn’t you run away or walk on the other side of the street, or why didn’t you walk in the store or call 911?’ And they say, ‘I was too embarrassed and I didn’t want him to think I was rude.’

“I always tell kids, if you’re uncomfortable, walk away, get away, run away if you want to – and at the very end, if you’re embarrassed and have to apologize later on, that’s the worst of it. If you go against your gut feeling and go against something that feels instinctively wrong, you’re going to end up hurt or you’re going to end up dead – and nobody cares if you’re rude at that point!

“We as parents have got to listen to our kids when they’re telling us, ‘Mom, this guy makes me uncomfortable.’ We had kids come through the system that were victimized, and they told their parents. Their parents didn’t believe them for whatever reason. We get a lot of that, especially with young children. Or the parents knew but didn’t do anything – I think that’s the hardest thing to swallow sometimes – parents aren’t listening or really watching their children, and things are happening to them.”

Aside from smarts and apps, what about weapons – like pepper spray? Are they effective?

“A child can carry pepper spray because it may work against an adult, or it may work against an animal. We’ve had a lot of children attacked by dogs. So pepper spray isn’t a bad idea if you feel that your child is mature enough to handle it. Also, a whistle is good to have... A really, really loud whistle is something that I’ve encouraged. But at the same time, they need to have a backup plan and if you’re a kid, usually the best plan is to run and scream, simple as that.

“The most important is to not scare our children, but to prepare them. We need to empower our children to know the risks and how to react.”

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

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