Jeanine Cochrane remembers the day on a beach three years ago when her son, now 6, thought his family was leaving the beach for the afternoon and walked away — without his mother or father.
It took a few minutes for relatives to find the boy, but it represented the moment feared by parents — when they scour a beach and cannot find their child.
This happens thousands of time each year on South Jersey beaches, according to local beach patrols.
“My heart did not stop pounding for an hour after,” said Cochrane, of Egg Harbor Township, as she watched over her three children at an Atlantic City beach on Sunday afternoon.
Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise said his lifeguards have responded to 309 lost children reports so far this year. In each case, the lost children and their worried parents were reunited safely, he said.
Most are located within minutes, but a few cases find children walking miles to another town.
Bill Ciavarelli, captain of the North Wildwood Beach Patrol, said there have been times when children walked two miles to Wildwood Crest. Ciavarelli said North Wildwood lifeguards typically handle 700 lost child cases a year.
Sometimes parents or guardians report a child missing. Other times, other beachgoers or the children themselves track down lifeguards.
“We stress if the child is lost, come right to the lifeguard, and we’ll be able to reunite them. We have the radio, and we’ll walk the section (of the beach),” Ciavarelli said. “If it’s been a little bit of time, we’ll put the child in the back of a truck and drive them around, which helps the child to identify where they’re sitting.”
Sandy Bosacco, captain of the Stone Harbor Beach Patrol, says his department usually handles one lost child report a day.
“We always have to take it very seriously because it is a missing child,” Bosacco said. “Guards get descriptions from parents, and we radio it into headquarters. ... We also contact the police.”
“After the child is reunited we always have the police confirm they are in fact the parents. It seems it may not be a big deal because you’re on the beach, but you have to treat it like a missing person in the city,” he said.
Lifeguards say there are steps parents can take to prevent losing a child at the beach, and to help teach children what to do if separated from parents.
Aluise said parents can educate their children about their whereabouts on the beach to help their orientation. They should also teach children to seek out a lifeguard if lost.
Ciavarelli suggests parents introduce children to the lifeguard and the location of the lifeguard chair, as well as the street. Showing them the surroundings and the locations of major landmarks can also help, he said.
There are no steadfast rules to where children may head when losing their parents.
Children may tend to walk with the wind, as it can provide less resistance, Bosacco said.
“I would say it’s a little more than half the time, but not enough to use it as a rule,” he said. “The main thing is parents tell their children don’t delay before notifying (a lifeguard).”
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