Bob Pfeifer is the author of University of Strangers
Bob Pfeifer is a founding member and songwriter for the Human Switchboard and currently the band Tabby Chinos. He was a Senior Vice President A&R / Epic/Sony Records and President of Hollywood Records, where he worked with artists including Alice Cooper, Ornette Coleman and The Screaming Trees, and on soundtracks like the Crow: City of Angels and Lion King. He lives with his son in Los Angeles. University of Strangers is his first novel.
Here are 5 tips to help keep your children safe:
1. Internet: Teach them how to use it and become savvy computer users; to understand that if they get lost, you would put up a website they could access and write you. It’s good to curtail computer game use, but they absolutely need to know it is a great information tool. Knowing how to research names on Google can be a great tool for missing children.
2. Dialing numbers: You need to drill them daily on your cell phone number and landline, if you have one. Make it into a song or a rhyme to help them memorize. Every child should know their parents’ numbers. It is also important to explain country codes and how to dial from a foreign country if that applies to your child.
3. How to spell names: Teach your child how to spell your name, in case they need to tell a police officer or type it in a search on the computer.
4. Code word: Create a code word with your child so they can use it if they are in danger and can’t say what is going on. Instruct your child that when they say that word, that will mean they are in danger and need you. A code word is also good to use if you need someone else to pick up your child. Make sure your child and the trusted person know the code word and that you child will only go with someone who knows the right word.
5. Who to go to: Instruct your child that they can speak to teachers if they are being abused at school; police officers if they are lost or escaped from a situation. They should know the names and numbers for close friends or relatives and know that those people are safe to contact if they are in trouble.
I know all this is important now, because I didn’t do these things with my son. We went over my phone numbers, but I didn’t teach him how to dial internationally. He didn’t know the last names of people close to me. We didn’t have a code word. It wasn’t a priority. Then Jerry was kidnapped, over a year ago, by his Slovakian mother. She and her mother took what was supposed to be a court-approved vacation back to the homeland with Jerry and his half-brother by another dad, Sasha. Jerry had lived with me half the time, and his mother the other half in Los Angeles for his entire 9 years. She had taken this same month-long vacation the year before, without any real incident. She was always breaking our custody agreement in little ways and I put up with it for Jerry’s sake. I wanted him to have both parents, and parents who tried to get along.
Last year, she was in a court battle with the second child’s father and was to return for a court date in early July. She missed that date, saying her second son, Sasha, was ill and couldn’t travel. But she maintained that she was heading back for her July 16th return date with me. She guaranteed me there would be no problem. This whole time I got to talk to Jerry through Skype. We had a long-established rule that we spoke every night he was with her, and she spoke every night he was with me. She had the passports. She had my trust to come back. I saw that this time around she didn’t ever actually give me a complete itinerary. She didn’t call regularly this time. By the last Skype call, on July 10th, she cut me off of the video and then the call, saying her IPhone battery was dead. I started to get nervous… thinking something felt wrong.
By July 16th, I still hadn’t talked to Jerry again and although she said that she would be back, via an email, I wasn’t sure. Jerry and I hadn’t spoken since that last call. But I went to the designated spot to meet her, hoping my instincts were wrong, and they weren’t there. My heart sank and I think I knew then there was a problem. I had no idea then, that she had plotted and planned to take my son from me and completely drop any contact with me. I knew she had been in that court battle with her ex-husband and was angry with him. She had, in that one decision changed the entire trajectory of my son’s life. Jerry will always have just one parent now.
When the LAPD was contacted that day, the other dad and I were sure she was still in Europe and had broken her custody agreements. We filed a child concealment report and soon after the police found out very disturbing information about Jerry’s mother — she had an eviction notice, abandoned her leased car, left many collection agencies empty-handed and had obviously no intention of returning to Los Angeles. She carefully had left little to trace. Her cell phone was shut off, leaving a gigantic unpaid bill. Her email was no longer used. I didn’t know any of her friends, as we were divorced for many years, and she was rarely seen by me with them. I scoured through old communication trying to find relatives in Slovakia I could contact. I got private investigators to look for her. We were waiting for charges to be brought against her.
One of the only leads we had was that Jerry had been registered in November 2012 at a Slovakian school, but Jerry’s mother had been reported by the school for neglect by having Jerry come to school poorly dressed for the weather, no food, and often being absent and sick. She promptly disappeared.
I have been at my wit’s end with worry for Jerry’s safety and health. Not a minute goes by that I don’t wonder where and how he is. I won’t rest until he is back. There is much more I could say about the instability that has been uncovered during this search, about both the mother and the grandmother. But I am not here to speak of them. I am here to speak about those tips for your child’s safety — about being a proactive parent. I wish I had instructed him more on how to reach me. He was only nine years old, but that is not too young to be computer savvy, not too young to know all your parents’ numbers and how to spell their names.
I hope you will try out these tips with your kids today. And I hope Jerry celebrates Christmas at home this year.