McCracken County Sheriff's Detective Sarah Martin, playing the role of our "stranger", lures kids away.
WPSD Local 6's Todd Faulkner sits with some of our participating parents for our Stranger Danger experiment.
With help from McCracken County Sheriff Jon Hayden and his department, we set up our Stranger Danger test at a park in Paducah.
WPSD Local 6 Chief Photographer Mike Spissinger interviews our "stranger" McCracken County Sheriff's Detective Sarah Martin
Twenty years ago this month WPSD Local 6 set up an experiment called Stranger Danger. At that time, in 1994, WPSD Local 6 worked with the Paducah Police Department to see if children would be tricked into talking to a stranger. A Paducah police officer disguised himself as a stranger and WPSD Local 6 set up the experiment at Keiller Park. The "stranger" successfully lured some kids away while others were not fooled.
Decades later, we wanted to try the experiment again. However, this time included a few changes. WPSD Local 6 worked with the McCracken County Sheriff's Department and the group Families On The Spectrum. McCracken County Sheriff's Detective Sarah Martin played the role of our stranger. Families On The Spectrum is an organization where members have at least one autistic child in the family. The group's president, Krissy Ramey, was excited to help with our experiment as a way to educate and inform the public.
"Just to realize that there are kids with special needs in this area and not all kids can process that there are things such as Stranger Danger," Ramey said.
What was a surprise to Ramey was when Detective Martin successfully lured her two typical kids away. Her autistic son Derek was not fooled.
"Disappointing. I thought my two typical kids knew better. I really did," Ramey said. "They should know better. They do know better but they still went. You're stomach turns and it makes your heart heavy. I mean, it absolutely makes your whole entire soul heavy."
Rusty Wirt is also a member of Families On The Spectrum and agreed to participate in our Stranger Danger experiment. He also hopes it serves as a teaching tool for families who may not have a child with autism. He came to the park with his 8 year-old daughter Star.
"Oh, absolutely she's my pride and joy," Wirt said.
What Star doesn't know, but her dad Rusty does, is that just a few yards away our hidden cameras are still rolling. Even before we begin our experiment with Star, her dad said he had little doubt his daughter would take the bait.
"I know exactly what's going to happen," Wirt said. "She has an attachment disorder which means she's not afraid of strangers at all. So, she'll run to a stranger and jump in their lap and give them a big hug."
His suspicion is confirmed when Detective Martin successfully lures Star to her car with the Hank the puppy. Star jumped at the chance to feed Hank when Detective Martin promised that she had dog treats in the car.
Jennifer Smith's daughters Ainsley and Briley also showed up at the park. Again, Jennifer knew about our experiment while her autistic daughter Ainsley and typical daughter Briley did not.
In less than a minute, just 45 seconds, Detective Martin successfully convinces Briley to help feed the dog treats at her car. Moments later Ainsley runs after her sister and both stood just inches from the back of the vehicle.
The moment left Jennifer Smith in tears.
"We just had the conversation on the way here," Smith cried. "That um, there goes Ainsley with her! That we had the conversation on the way here that they needed to be very careful that we were going somewhere that they'd never been before and they needed to stay where I could see them at all times."
All the parents involved in our Stranger Danger test agreed that it only takes a second for your child's life to change forever.
"I mean, just, you turn around to say one word and you're no longer in eyesight," Krissy Ramey added.
Again, all the parents were willing participants in our experiment. Their kids, however, had no idea what we were doing until the end. WPSD Local 6 and McCracken County Sheriff Jon Hayden gathered the kids and their parents together to explain what took place.
Sheriff Hayden reinforced to the kids how important it is not to talk with strangers.
"You guys know who she was? Well, turns out she was a police officer," Sheriff Hayden said. "When you're out and you're playing in the park and a stranger comes up to you. You never, ever, ever walk off with a stranger for any reason."
So, what can parents do? The biggest lesson learned is that parents must talk with their children about the dangers of talking with strangers on a daily basis. Reinforce to them several times a day not to accept gives from strangers, or talk to strangers when they ask for directions or pet their puppy.
Teach them to tell a parent or an adult who you trust if a stranger approaches you. Also, come up with a safe or secret word that only you and your child knows. Ramey, with Families On The Spectrum, encourages parents to step up and intervene if they don't think a child should be with a certain adult. Ramey supports such interaction even at risk of offending a parent because the child may have a form of autism and not know what's happening.