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A missing 16-year-old girl from Asheville, North Carolina was found safe by Kentucky police, after using a hand gesture she learned on TikTok to alert authorities that she was in danger.
On Thursday, a motorist driving on the Kentucky interstate contacted law enforcement after determining that it was no ordinary wave—the girl, in the passenger seat of a car driven by an older man, was in visible distress and was tucking her thumb into her palm before closing her fingers over it. A statement released on Friday by Laurel County Sheriff, John Root, reads, “The complainant was behind the vehicle and noticed a female passenger in the vehicle making hand gestures that are known on the social media platform ‘Tik Tok’ to represent violence at home—I need help—domestic violence.” Police were ultimately able to apprehend the driver of the car, arresting 61-year-old-suspect, James Herbert Brick, of Cherokee, North Carolina, at a traffic stop. He was subsequently charged with unlawful imprisonment. Brick also faces a child pornography charge, after the sheriff’s office stated that he had pornographic images of a child on his phone.
The gesture, which represents violence at home, was popularized on the video-focused social media platform over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which researchers have suggested that extended periods of increased social isolation led to sharp upticks in domestic violence cases. Many have taken to the internet to share the story, noting social media’s potential to incite awareness for important issues.
According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which created the “Signal for Help”, the gesture is used to indicate when an individual is in distress. “There’s ample evidence that disaster situations can lead to a surge in gender-based violence. Public health directives on home isolation might increase danger and risk for people in abusive relationships,” reads the site’s page on the signal.
According to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, in 2020, there were 365,348 reports of missing children in the United States. This statistic is compounded by the fact, in many other countries, information about missing children is often inaccurate or not readily accessible.
Though child abductions by strangers are rare, abductions by family members and acquaintances are much more prevalent amongst children. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recommends a variety of tips for parents to teach their children, so as to avoid instances of kidnapping. One such recommendation, similar to the hand signal employed by the Asheville teenager, is to have a child memorize a secret code word that must be known by any adult who asks the child to accompany them.
The FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team, which was created in 2005, often responds to high profile abduction cases. In June, during the search for a missing Tennessee child, Summer Wells, FBI Public Affairs Officer Darell DeBusk said, “We have deployed our Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) Team. FBI CARD Teams consist of highly trained and experienced subject-matter experts, including FBI agents, intelligence analysts, and behavioral analysis profilers … CARD Teams provide on-the-ground investigative, technical, analytical, and resource assistance during non-family child abductions, ransom child abductions, and mysterious disappearances of children.” Public reaction to Wells’s case also resulted in a flurry of social media posts, and the missing child’s parents are set to appear on an episode of Dr. Phil on Nov. 11 and 12 to discuss what they know about their daughter’s disappearance.