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Personal safety expert offers tips for kids

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KIRKWOOD, Missouri (CNN) -- A suburban St. Louis pizzeria manager has been charged with kidnapping two boys, one of whom was held captive for more than four years. CNN's Soledad O'Brien recently spoke with personal safety expert Francine Russell outside the suspect's apartment to learn how kids can stay safe.

O'Brien: When I was on my way here, my daughter said what story are you going to cover? And I didn't know how much to tell her. She's 6 years old and I don't want to scare her, talking about kidnapping and someone holding a child. And yet I feel like she's the perfect age to understand a little bit about how to be safe. So what's the right age?

Russell: I think you can start really young with kids, and pretty much present the information to them very matter of factually, the way you would any other safety information, like how to, to what to do in case of a fire ...

O'Brien: Drop and roll.

Russell: A tornado. Exactly. You just sort of say, if this happens, here is what you do. Because kids, even at 6, they're hearing the stories on the news, they get scared. And I think what scares them more is that they don't have an answer to that situation.

O'Brien: So if a stranger approaches you, what should she do, scream and run?

Russell: Well, first thing is, I think it's good for parents to know that stranger abductions are really not common. Children are much more at risk from people that they know than from strangers. But one of the first things with strangers is trust their instincts. If they have a bad feeling about this person and something seems wrong, they need to trust it and do something about it. Also, be clear, make sure your children are clear on who a stranger is. We found in working with kids that they usually answer the questions really well. A stranger could be a man, a woman, a child, but when we say can a stranger be nice? They say oh no.

O'Brien: Well, I had that problem, I told my daughter all about strangers and we're walking down the street in New York City on our way to school and she's saying a stranger, a stranger. Yes, they were all strangers, none of them were trying to abduct her and I thought, ugh, everything I was trying to do, I just messed up.

Russell: I think that was right because she's right. Everybody she sees around her that she doesn't know, even if they are nice and friendly to her, is a stranger. Now, she's with you, so that you can also make the distinction with kids, if I'm not with you, then you'll have to do things a little differently.

O'Brien: But what about cases like this ... where the child is miraculously alive after so much time, and yet doesn't run for their life for a whole bunch of reasons. We've heard some psychologists saying they're terrified, they're threatened, etc. What do you tell your kids, if anything ever happens, run if you get a chance? Go to somebody to help you. If a person that's a stranger may not be a stranger if they could save your life? It seems so complicated.

Russell: Actually, it's pretty simple. Somebody they don't know is a stranger whether they are nice or not. Stay out of the reach of stranger -- keep at least two arms length distance, which means if a stranger approaches you, you've got to move, stay out of their reach. Be loud, make a lot of noise at the time that somebody is trying to potentially abduct you. Usually, assailants want things to be quiet. They don't want to draw attention.

O'Brien: And if you need help.

Russell: And if you need help, run.

O'Brien: Look how small this apartment complex is. This teenager could have run to any of these apartments.

Russell: But here's the thing, too, I think you've got to take advantage of the moment when somebody tries to abduct you. And that's the time to put up the fight and to run and do something. Because once they get you and the longer you stay with the person and the whole psychological issue comes to play, and I think there's been threats, and it's important for parents to tell kids, if somebody threatens mom and dad, mom and dad can take care of themselves, you still run, you still scream, you still get away from them, and never get in a vehicle with somebody, never. That's just not an option.

O'Brien: All excellent advice. It's really scary, these boys all kidnapped, that 11-year-old, 12, 13-year-old stage when you start giving children opportunities to go alone and walk alone and letting them have a little freedom because they're growing up. It's such a terrifying thing for parents, I have to say.

Russell: And I think that's why you have to train your kids, because they will be alone when somebody tries to do this. You won't be there to help them. So they've got to know what to do on their own.


Michael Devlin, 41, a pizza parlor manager, is accused of kidnapping two boys and holding one of them for four years.

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