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Rossen Reports social experiment: Will strangers help a 'lost' child?

Last March, 11-year-old Kareem Granton disappeared from his Brooklyn home because he didn't want to clean up after his family's dog. He slept on New York subway trains for five nights before being reunited safely with his family after a passenger realized he wasn't with a parent and notified a police officer, according to published reports.

Would you notice a lost kid wandering around on his or her own? Would you get involved and help?

Staging a social experiment as many children return to school, the Rossen Reports team wired a boy named Bjorn Golden with hidden cameras to see if anyone would notice that he was apparently on his own and see if he needed help. 

At New York's famed Coney Island amusement park, Bjorn boarded ride after ride with no mom or dad in sight. He even bought tickets with his own money without being questioned.

In fact, no one at the park questioned Bjorn. When the Rossen team showed the hidden camera footage to child safety advocate John Walsh, he said, "As the father of a murdered child, it's very disturbing to me. It only takes a minute for the predator to identify a vulnerable child, swoop in, and you may never see your child again."

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The results were the same on the Coney Island boardwalk. Bjorn wandered around for more than an hour and no one stopped him. Even when he asked two women if they wanted him to take their picture, the pair walked away when he finished.

Bjorn's mom, Lena, was watching everything from a distance. She said, "I think it's really scary because I understand now that if this were to truly happen, the likelihood of anyone reaching out and trying to help him, if he's not breaking down crying, is almost zero."

Continuing the experiment on the boardwalk, Bjorn followed instructions from the Rossen team and asked two strangers for directions to a bathroom. Neither questioned why he was alone. Afterward, Jeff Rossen identified himself to the passersby and asked if they had noticed Bjorn was by himself. 

"Yeah, but he seemed comfortable and confident, self-assured," replied one. "He seemed old enough, it's broad daylight, lots of people around."

But Walsh pointed out: "They're not going to be crying or hysterical. And kids are so vulnerable, at that age particularly. They're so trusting, they're so innocent, and you don't want the bad guy to come up and say, 'I can help you.'"

The experiment continued at a much quieter park where Bjorn walked through a group of adults, passed women pushing strollers, and listened to a musician. No one even looked twice. When the Rossen team had Bjorn sit alone on a bench for many minutes with no guardian in sight, no one said anything.

Rossen identified himself to a man nearby and said NBC News was doing a story about lost kids. "Would you like to think that if a child was lost and by himself, you'd be able to recognize [it]?" Rossen asked.

"Yeah, yeah," the man replied. "I would call the police over and make sure that they were taken care of."

"Did you notice this child right over here?" Rossen asked. "He's been sitting next to you without a parent for several minutes."

"I actually did think about why he was sitting there by himself," the man replied. "If I noticed something bad was about to happen, obviously I would have stepped in."

"I would like to think that I would notice a child by himself sitting a few seats away from me, but I didn't," said a woman who had also been nearby. "So it makes me really think about it for next time: Just be more aware."

Many observers the Rossen team spoke to after revealing the experiment said that they had seen that Bjorn was alone, but didn't want to be seen interacting with a child they didn't know, concerned that it would be misinterpreted and they would be seen as trying to do something wrong.

John Walsh says you've got to get past that. He says you could literally save a life by asking something as simple as, "Are you OK? Do you need help?"

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