The sun is out, school is over, and many Frederick County families are planning time together at camps, parks, pools and amusement parks.
But while packing picnic baskets, parents might want to think about something else that often goes together with the crowds and excitement of summer trips — the possibility of getting separated from their children.
Losing sight of a child in a crowded amusement park or busy beach can be one of a parent’s worst nighmares.
“We may see up to 10 of those incidents on a crowded weekend,” said Daniel Spedden, park manager at the South Mountain Recreation Area, which includes Greenbrier State Park.
The park has a safety plan that kicks into action when a child is reported missing, Spedden said, which might involve clearing the water of swimmers, closing the park’s exit lane to prevent an abduction, or playing pre-recorded announcements instructing visitors how to help with the search.
“We often find the kids within 50 to 60 yards of their parents,” Spedden said. “We’ve never had an incident that didn’t get resolved in a positive way.”
Spedden said in many cases a lost child was being watched by an older sibling. That’s why he advises parents to avoid coming to the park with a large group of children of different ages unless they have help from another adult.
Cunningham Falls and Gambrill State Parks have similar plans for missing children, said parks assistant manager Rob Dyke.
“We do see an increase in missing children and parents after school is out,” he wrote in an email. “It occurs more often when the park is very busy. If parents are not keeping a watchful eye on their children, it is easy for them to get mixed up in the crowd, especially at the beaches.”
In case of an emergency, parents always can seek help from park rangers, who are trained in Incident Command and Search and Rescue Techniques, Dyke said.
The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo is another popular destination for families, and every season there are three to four incidents when staff reunite missing children with their families.
“Often times the child is where the parent told them to be, but the parent wandered off,” said June Bellizzi, assistant director at the zoo.
If a child is reported missing, staff follow a protocol known as “Code Stork.” Once the code comes over their radio system, all employees participate in the search. At the zoo’s gift shop, also an entrance, someone is immediately posted to prevent a possible abduction, Bellizzi said. “The minute that code is called, the door is sealed.”
Although missing child incidents rarely last for more than 10 minutes, they can take a great toll on parents, so Bellizzi advises families to be prepared and use a buddy system when they come with a big group. Having everyone wear the same color T-shirts or hats also helps to prevent getting children lost in big crowds, she said.
Some families also have strategies to prevent their children from getting lost in crowded public spaces.
Jamie Haney of Frederick, for example, has made sure her 4-year-old son Cyrus knows his full name and address in case they get separated. When they go to the pool or park, Haney sets a visual boundary — such as the end of the playground — that Cyrus knows he’s not supposed to cross.
“The big one is that he has to be where I can see him and he can see me,” Haney said.
And even with that precaution, she recalled when he pulled away from her and ran into a crowded toy store in New York City.
“I froze,” she said. “It was maybe five seconds before I heard him crying for me. It was scary. I wasn’t letting him go after that,” she said.
Throughot the years, Cecile Hunter and her husband also have developed their own techniques that give them piece of mind when they take their three girls — aged 12, 8 and 1 — out in public places.
If they go to a busy amusement park, the Hunters always set a meeting spot at a central location where their children need to go if they get lost. Also, the Hunters make sure they tell each other if they are taking one of the children away from the others.
The Hunters developed that practice after one of their daughters wandered off in a supermarket. They didn’t worry initially because each thought she was with the other parent. The incident was resolved quickly, but it scared the Hunters. They say it taught them a lesson for life.
Nancy McBride, the national safety director with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, also has tips for parents who want to avoid losing a child in public place. Wearing the same color definitely helps keep track of family members, McBride said. The color orange always is easiest to spot.
One of the easiest things parents can do before going out on a day trip is snap a quick photo of their child, showing their face and what they are wearing that day. This way in case a child goes missing, the parent always can show the photo to law enforcent officers or staff.
“It’s such an easy tool and everyone has it on their phones these days,” she said.