Even as a little girl growing up on the other side of the world, I knew that 911 was the number to call if you were ever in trouble in the USA. Television shows and movies had done their work of educating this little South African girl that if there was an emergency, these were the three digits to call. In fact, I remember my Mom having to remind me often that South Africa had its own emergency number (10111) that I needed to rehearse. Just in case.
As a Mom wanting to prepare my own kids for “just in case” situations, I started to talk with my kids about when to call 911 a couple of years back. Just like we played a “airplane game” to prepare for airports and international travel (picture it: stand in line, go through security, stand in line some more, walk a bit, stand in line….), so too we started playing “911” from time to time. I was always afraid something would happen while I was alone at home with the kids, so I started with those scenarios:
“Let’s pretend we are sleeping and we wake up and we see FIRE in the house. What do we do?” My preschooler and I would lie under blankets, open our eyes, scrunch our noses up at the imaginary smoke, and then run outside and pretend-dial 911. I would do a rapid role switch from sibling to dispatcher, and we would practice on the phone. Me: What’s your emergency? Her: There’s a fire… and we practiced our address and name.
We practiced scenarios where a kid falls off a play structure, where Mommy gets hurt at home and can’t get to the phone, where someone who is not our friend breaks into our house and we feel scared. We also talked about how calling 911 is only for emergencies: not for when your brother won’t share a toy or the LEGO structure you’ve been working on got smashed. But fire? death? injury? crime? You know who to call.
Perhaps it was because of this “only call if you KNOW it’s an emergency” thought that it didn’t cross my mind at first to call 911 when I saw a teenager sitting alone outside a gas station at 11pm. Our family was on the last stretch of the long trip home, and—with three sleeping kids in the back—we pulled off the highway for a final bathroom break.
Both my husband and I noticed the girl as we tag-teamed our potty breaks: she was sitting off to the side of the parking lot, in a darker spot rather than under the lit area. She didn’t seem hurt, or panicked, but my gut told me something was off: a teen girl, greasy hair, alone late at night in a seedy part of Nevada, carrying a stuffed backpack: what was in there? Something about her hit a trip wire in my brain, and on my way back to the car, I went over to talk to her:
Me: Are you okay?
Me: Are you safe?
Me: Are you waiting for someone?
Me: Oh. Is there anything I can get you?
Me: I’m concerned about you: you don’t seem safe to me. Are you in trouble?
I didn’t believe her.
I walked back to the car, not sure what else to do. My husband and I exchanged observations (he had noticed her rocking slightly when he went past), and while we were talking, we saw the girl get up and walk further away from us: deeper into the dark night.
We didn’t know what to do. We drove after her a couple of feet as we talked, and she ducked behind a dumpster. After doing a series on sex trafficking last year, I had learned that an alarming number of runaway teens get picked up by traffickers within their first 24 hours on the street. I was terrified that even if she wasn’t being trafficked now, she was in grave danger of being so in the very near future.
I keep the number for the National Trafficking Hotline in my phone (you should too: it’s 1-888-373-7888), but I wasn’t sure she was being trafficked. I just thought she might be at risk. (In hindsight, I think I could have called them, too). So who to call? I wasn’t sure about calling 911: there was no blood or crime or ER-worthy situation… but as we thought about it, talking to local police seemed the best option, so with some trepidation, I dialed 911.
The dispatcher was immediately responsive: I gave a description of the girl, where we were, relayed the conversation we’d had and my gut instinct that she was running away, and they sent out a dispatch car within two minutes. I suppose in Nevada’s gambling cities, police are aware of the dark underbelly of trafficking in a way I can’t even imagine. They were ON IT.
With nothing else to do, we headed back towards the freeway, and as I drove with a hollow gnaw in my stomach I prayed for this girl: that she would be found, that she would be saved—whatever salvation needed to look like tonight. My phone rang a few minutes later: the 911-dispatcher asking a few more questions about the direction we had seen her walk in, and I took courage that this meant they were actively looking for her.
Identifying at-risk teens had never been on my radar as a situation in which I might call 911, and it isn’t a scenario I will add to the play-acting repertoire with our kids. It IS, however, a situation which I now know 911 does respond to and wants to know about. We call 911 when someone is hurt, or danger is imminent. Sometimes we don’t know how dangerous that danger might be: if someone collapses, we don’t know whether they’ve fainted and will revive with smelling salts, or whether they’ve had a heart attack – but either way, we call 911 because there’s an imminent threat of danger.
Now I know that seeing lonely teens with nowhere to go and no one to call in the middle of the night falls into that same category.
If you see something, say something.