Just earlier this month in central Arkansas, a 13-year-old boy was in the bathroom at a Walmart when a man allegedly exposed himself to the child. In similar case last year, a 7-year-old girl was in the bathroom at a Little Rock family restaurant when she says she was sexually assaulted by a waiter. So, how do you keep your children safe when using a public restroom alone?
The key is to arm your child with the ability to be aware of their surroundings and to recognize when something isn't right. Most experts agree that before the age of ten, most children don't have those skills.
Danger can lurk in any pubic restroom. Someone can be behind a closed door, hide in a stall or they can simply follow a child inside. Being alone makes a child vulnerable. That's why parents need to be sure their child is really ready for that responsibility.
A child sexual abuse expert at Arkansas Children's Hospital, Dr. Karen Farst said, "I think most pediatric sources you'd look at would probably put an age range of around 10 as when kids are probably old enough to be aware of their surroundings and kind of be aware of there's danger approaching. Again that's a hard thing to judge because, until you see how they'll react in a situation - that may be hard to know that."
If a child is going into a restroom alone, Dr. Farst said parents still need to be close by. She said it's a good idea to poke your head inside to see who's in there before your child goes in.
If possible, send your child into the restroom with a buddy or an older sibling. Parents should always watch the door so they know who's going in and out.
Most importantly, they need to teach their children how to scream and call for help.
"If there's anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to stop and exit. If your exit is blocked, you need to call for help. Those are two pretty good rules in public places where people should be able to hear you if you do cry for help," explained Dr. Farst.
However, cries for help aren't easily heard in remote restrooms like those in parks or around the backs of gas stations. That's why parents shouldn't let kids or teens go into those restrooms alone.
"If you think about gas stations or places that are more remote, do not let your kid get out of your sight in situations like that because those are the unfortunate stories we hear about when kids are all of a sudden missing or abducted."
The bottom line is that parents have to always stay on guard. The parents we talked to agree.
Father of two Don Ernst said, "I think we live in times when we have to err on the side of extra vigilance. It's sad and it's depressing but as parents, your first obligation is to keep your kids safe."
"My kids didn't go to the public bathroom by themselves until they were old enough to go out by themselves," said grandmother Joetta Bailey. "I would always be there monitoring by the door."
When traveling through crowded areas like airports or amusement parks Dr. Farst advised it is safest to not be separated. She said families should find a family restroom that they can go to together whenever possible.