It seemed the summer had barely arrived when reports of children being kidnapped (search) or sexually assaulted began to appear regularly in the news, the most recent a string of incidents in which children were sexually victimized just feet away from their parents, out in the open in the shopping aisles of retail stores.

Parents, perhaps still reeling from the last year's summer of terror that saw the high-profile kidnapping and brutal murders of Danielle Van Damme (search) and Samantha Runnion (search), as well as the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart (search), may be feeling powerless in protecting their children from predators. 

But according to experts in the field, there are steps parents can take to safeguard their kids. The first is educating themselves and understanding the reality and nature of the threat. Awareness and preparedness are the keys to protecting your children.

The reality is that child sexual exploitation (search) is an enormous problem in the United States. 

According to the National Center for Missing & Sexually Exploited Children (search), conservative estimates indicate that one in five girls and one in ten boys will be sexually victimized before reaching adulthood. Unfortunately, many children do not report what has happened to them out of fear, shame or embarrassment. In fact, less than 35 percent of these cases are ever reported to law enforcement officials.

The problem has only been exacerbated by the Internet. The National Center identified 705 cases last year in which a child or the victimizer traveled to meet someone first encountered on the Internet. A U.S. Department of Justice survey also found that one in five children aged 10 to 17 had received unwanted sexual solicitations online in the past year.

There are more than 400,000 registered sex offenders (search) in this country. Child molesters can be found lurking anywhere there are children. To protect their children, here are some points parents should be aware of.

Children should never tell callers they are home alone.  Arrange to have a neighbor or trusted adult whom children can call if they are scared or have an emergency. Always keep these numbers by the phone for easy access. 

Set ground rules for computer use. Make sure to set reasonable rules and guidelines for computer and Internet use by your children. Computers and online services are great learning tools but bad babysitters. Teach your children to never give out personal information over the Internet.

Always know where your children are. Have them check first with you before they go anywhere or do anything. Ask for regular check-ins with you or a trusted adult when you're not with them, but remember that nothing takes the place of your attention and supervision of your children.

There's safety in numbers. Teach your children to always take a friend when playing or going somewhere. Remember that even older children should not go to a public restroom alone.

Stay on familiar paths. Children should never take shortcuts without their parents' permission.

Teach your children to trust their instincts. Teach your children that they have the right to say NO to any unwelcome, uncomfortable or confusing touches or actions by others. Teach them to immediately tell you if this happens and reassure them it's okay to talk about it.

Encourage open communication. Take the time to talk to your children and learn how to be an active listener. Pay attention if they tell you that they don't want to be with someone or go somewhere.

Be involved in your children's activities. As an active participant, you'll have a better opportunity to observe how the adults in charge interact with your children. Child molesters often seek out opportunities where they have legitimate access to kids.

Put non-identifiable clothes on your children. Kids should not wear clothes or carry items with their name on the outside. Someone may try to trick them by calling their name.

Don’t drop your children off at malls, movies, video arcades or parks. These are not safe places for children to be alone. Make certain that a responsible adult supervises your younger children at all times when they are outside and away from home.

Choose babysitters with care. Obtain references from family, friends and neighbors. Many states now have registries for public access to check criminal history or sex-offender status. Observe the babysitter’s interaction with your children and ask your children how they feel about the babysitter.

Practice basic safety skills with your children. Should your child become lost or separated from you, teach them not to panic. Identify beforehand the safest place they should go to wait for you, or teach them to contact a low-risk adult to ask for help in reuniting them with you, such as a uniformed security guard or law-enforcement officer, store salesperson with a nametag, a mother with children, or the person in the information booth. Children should never search for you by themselves, and should never, ever go off alone with anyone who claims to be trying to reunite them with you.

The abuse and exploitation of children are horrible crimes, but there is much parents can do to keep children safe.

Ernie Allen is president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.  NCMEC's Family Advocacy Division works with families, law enforcement and family advocacy agencies to provide technical assistance, referrals, and crisis intervention services in child exploitation cases. If you have information regarding the kidnapping or abuse of children, call the NCMEC toll-free hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST or visit  www.cybertipline.com.