I was torn when I heard that the weeklong search for 40-year-old James DiMaggio and Hannah Anderson, the 16-year-old he allegedly kidnapped, ended this past weekend in the Idaho wilderness.
I was pleased because the girl was found safe, and troubled because of the circumstances under which she was purportedly abducted. According to published reports, DiMaggio was a close family friend who spent a lot of time alone with Hannah Anderson, driving her back and forth to cheerleading practice and even taking her on a trip to Hollywood. Her parents apparently trusted him that much. In a heartbreaking twist, their trust was allegedly repaid with violence. Anderson’s mother and 8-year-old brother were found dead in DiMaggio’s burning house on the day DiMaggio and the girl disappeared.
DiMaggio, who was killed when FBI agents rescued Hannah Anderson, is not here to defend himself, so we do not know what happened between him and the girl. Nor do we know exactly how Hannah Anderson’s mother and brother died. We do, however, know that a 16-year-old girl was allowed to spend an inordinate amount of time with a 40-year-old man. In the end, three people died.
The silver lining is that Hannah Anderson will be reunited with her father. Within that silver lining, there are lessons for all of us as parents. They are important lessons; life saving lessons; the kinds of lessons we must internalize before the next tragedy strikes.
For our part, there are certain rules we’ve long held concerning where our children can go and with whom.
Rule No. 1: No sleepovers. We’ve been called too strict, too rigid, and too old-fashioned, but that’s the rule. We just don’t believe we can protect our children when they’re under someone else’s roof, adhering to someone else’s rules and subject to someone else’s mistakes. Our feeling has always been that we bought our children beds so they could sleep in them. Therefore they don’t need to sleep in someone else’s.
There are exceptions, of course. Our children spend the night with their grandparents because we know how they run their homes. We know who is coming and going. We know it’s safe. Unfortunately, not everyone’s home is that way, and if we ignore that reality in an effort to please our children, we are failing them as parents.
Rule No. 2: No visiting anyone’s home without our knowledge. For example, if they’re working on a project with a classmate and they need to do some work at the classmate’s house, we have to meet the parents beforehand. We have to have a conversation with them. We have to get a sense of who they are. Then we need to know when they’re going and when they’re expected back. If we don’t like what we hear, our kids can’t go.
Rule No. 3: No spending extended periods of time alone with an adult. Call it paranoid, or just plain wrong, but this is our rule. Neither of our children is permitted to spend extended time alone with an adult unless it is a relative we know extremely well. The exception? Group activities like sports or family outings. But we have to be familiar with the adult and know others who can vouch for his or her character.
These rules are not foolproof, of course. I’m sure Hannah Anderson’s parents believed they knew James DiMaggio well.
I also know that rules alone are never enough to keep people from doing things. There will come a time when our children will break our rules. We know that. But in a world where a family friend would abduct a teenage girl or a python would kill two boys during a sleepover or a man would offer rides to girls and hold them captive for a decade, we do what we can to keep our children safe.
But let’s be honest. None of us is a perfect parent. I know I’m not. Like most parents, I’m trying my best to make good decisions for my children, and I’m doing so without an instruction manual.
The best thing I can do for them is to let them know that my decisions are made because I love them. And when the time comes, I’ll have to love them enough to let them go. Until then, it’s my job to protect them. Prayerfully that’s enough to keep them safe.