A missing teenager in the US has been rescued after a quick-thinking motorist recognised her use of a distress hand signal that went viral on social media.
The 16-year-old from North Carolina was reported missing by her parents last week.
Two days later, she was seen sitting in the passenger seat of an older man’s car in Kentucky, using the hand signal to indicate she was in danger.
The signal was recognised by an alert passing motorist, who promptly called the police. They pulled the vehicle over and arrested the 61-year-old driver.
He has been charged with unlawful imprisonment. Police said his mobile phone also contained images that “portrayed a juvenile female in a sexual manner”.
“We don’t know how long coming down the interstate from Ohio that she had been doing this to other motorists, hoping that they would notice that she was in distress,” Kentucky sheriff’s deputy Gilbert Acciardo told local media.
The signal is to raise a hand, palm outwards, with your thumb extended. Then tuck your thumb into your palm and lower your fingers over it, as if to trap the thumb.
The teenager had initially accompanied the man, who she knew, willingly. He took her to visit his relatives in Ohio, but left when she was reported missing.
At some point, the girl became scared and started using the hand signal.
The man remains in jail, pending a bond hearing on Tuesday (US time).
The hand signal used by the 16-year-old girl was created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo: Canadian Women’s Foundation
Sign of the times
The hand signal, created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in April 2020, has become an internationally recognised and universal symbol used by people to communicate when they need help.
It was created in response to increased reports of domestic violence around the world during pandemic lockdowns and ‘stay at home’ measures.
In 2020, a Women’s Safety NSW survey said 40 per cent of frontline workers reported an increase in request for help by domestic violence survivors.
The hand signal went viral almost instantaneously on content-sharing platform TikTok.
The platform’s creators praised it for leaving no digital footprint and allowing survivors to discreetly call for help, with minimised risk.
“The social isolation measures necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic are making it more difficult for those who are at risk of abuse or violence to safely reach out for help,” the Canadian Women’s Foundation said.
“Signal for Help is a simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call. It can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way.”
@thetinzmanSpread this information like wildfire however you can #fyp #foryou #CanYouWorkIt #quarantine #ThisIsBliss #SignalForHelp♬ original sound – thetinzman
How to signal for help
The hand signal is easy to replicate.
- Hold up your hand towards the camera, or where visible.
- Tuck your thumb towards your palm.
- Fold your fingers over your thumb.
See a demonstration of the signal in action here:
What to do if you see someone using the signal
If you see someone using the signal, the Canadian Women’s Foundation recommends checking in with the person safely to see how you can help.
If the person is in immediate danger or you are unable to reach them, the foundation recommends contacting local emergency services.
One of many initiatives
The hand signal follows initiatives in previous years across the globe, spreading ways victims of harassment can discreetly ask for help.
England’s Lincolnshire County Council launched a campaign against sexual violence in 2016, encouraging patrons to ask for fictional bartender ‘Angela’ at venues should they feel unsafe.
The ‘Ask for Angela’ tactic, part of the council’s #NoMore campaign, was promoted in toilet stalls around the area.
The tactic soon spread worldwide.