Missing Girl Is Rescued After Using Hand Signal From TikTok

The girl flashed the hand signal from a car on a Kentucky interstate, the authorities said. It was created as a way for people to indicate that they are at risk of abuse and need help.,

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A girl reported missing from Asheville, N.C., and in distress in the passenger seat of a car traveling through Kentucky appeared to be waving through the window to passing cars on Thursday.

But one driver recognized the signal from TikTok, and knew it was no ordinary wave.

The girl, 16, was using a new distress signal, tucking her thumb into her palm before closing her fingers over it, according to the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office. The signal, created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation for people to indicate that they are at risk of abuse and need help, has spread largely through TikTok in the past year.

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The driver who spotted the signal called 911 and conveyed a suspicion that the girl was in trouble because she was using the hand gesture. Though the dispatcher and officers were unfamiliar with the signal, sheriff’s deputies pulled the car over to investigate, and learned that the girl’s parents had reported her missing two days earlier.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested the driver, James Herbert Brick, 61, of Cherokee, N.C., and charged him with unlawful imprisonment. Mr. Brick, who the sheriff’s office said had pornographic images of a child on his phone, also faces a child pornography charge.

The girl and Mr. Brick are “acquaintances” but are not related, said Gilbert Acciardo, public affairs officer for the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office. The girl told investigators that she had traveled with Mr. Brick through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, where he had family. He left the family after they learned that the girl was a minor and that she had been reported missing by her family. She said she began trying to get motorists’ attention as they traveled south from Ohio.

It was not clear how many people saw the girl’s hand signal, Officer Acciardo said. When the deputies pulled the car over, the girl made the signal toward them, he said.

“I don’t think any of us realized what that was,” he said. “But we certainly do now.”

Investigators believe Mr. Brick thought she was simply waving at other cars and didn’t attempt to stop her, Officer Acciardo said. He praised the girl for using the gesture, which he said would be a useful tool for victims if it were universally known.

“This is probably the best thing I’ve seen come along in the 48 years I’ve been a patrol officer,” he said.

Millions of people have seen videos featuring the signal on TikTok and YouTube, while organizations including the World Bank and the Women’s Funding Network have promoted it since April 2020. It began as a Covid-era lifeline for women in abusive relationships, intended to be used on video calls as a signal that others should check in on them.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation advises that anyone who sees the signal should not necessarily immediately call the authorities, but should instead reach out safely, if possible, to the person who used it. The signal does not correspond to anything in American Sign Language, so it relies on general awareness to be effective.

“It is a relief to hear that somebody was able to use the signal in a very dangerous situation, and that somebody knew how to respond,” Andrea Gunraj, the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s vice president of public engagement, said in an interview on Monday.

When officials at the foundation were deciding what the signal should be, she said, they settled on a one that they believed was easy to do and would be visible on a video call.

Ms. Gunraj said that while it was encouraging that the signal was becoming more widely known, there was more outreach and public education to be done.

“We’re very aware that as many as these situations that you might hear about in the news, there’s going to be thousands more that will never make the news that will be shrouded in silence because they happen behind closed doors,” Ms. Gunraj said.

Angeline Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said in an interview on Monday that it was remarkable to think “how many things went right in this scenario” involving the rescue of the girl in Kentucky.

“We always say it only takes one person to bring a missing child home,” Ms. Hartmann said. “This was that one person, and you never know when you’re going to be that one person. In this case, she made a signal, that person paid attention and a call was made.”

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