Missing teen rescued after signaling for help with hand gesture she learned on TikTok

A girl reported missing in Asheville, North Carolina, is now safe at home after a motorist saw her flashing a hand gesture from a car that signals she’s at risk of abuse and needed help. The minor and her abductor were traveling through Kentucky when the girl recalled a hand signal for abuse that she saw on TikTok.

The distressed 16-year-old appeared to be waving through the window to passing cars, but one person in a nearby vehicle recognized the signal and knew it wasn’t just an ordinary wave.

The girl was tucking her thumb into her palm before closing her fingers over it, said the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office.

An infographic detailing how to perform the "Signal for Help" hand gesture
Canadian Women’s Foundation

The hand gesture, called the “Signal for Help,” was created by the Canadian Women’s Foundation at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic for people to silently show that they need help. It became viral on TikTok in the past year.

The person who saw the signal called 911 and expressed suspicion that the girl was using the gesture to communicate she was in trouble. The motorist then drove behind the vehicle the teen was in for seven miles while on the phone with authorities.

Although the dispatcher and the officers were unaware of the signal, sheriff’s deputies responded to the call and pulled over the car to investigate.

A woman demonstrating the "Signal for Help" hand gesture
YouTube

The concerned driver was right—the girl was in danger and had been reported missing two days earlier by her parents.

Authorities arrested the 61-year-old suspect from Cherokee, North Carolina, and charged him with unlawful imprisonment. The police also discovered pornographic images of a child on his phone, so he was charged with possession of material showing a sexual performance by a minor.

The girl and the man are “acquaintances” but are not related, according to Gilbert Acciardo, public affairs officer for the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office. She initially went with him voluntarily but eventually got scared.

The teen informed investigators that she had traveled with the suspect through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, where he had relatives. They left after the family discovered she was a minor and had been reported missing by her parents. She said she had been trying to get the attention of other motorists as they traveled from Ohio until one driver actually noticed.

A woman demonstrating the "Signal for Help" hand gesture
YouTube

It was not clear how many people saw the girl’s hand signal. When deputies pulled the car over, she showed them the gesture. They didn’t realize what it meant then, but now they do.

Investigators believe the perpetrator thought she was simply waving at other cars, so he paid her no mind. Officer Acciardo commended the girl for using the signal.

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

Videos featuring the signal had gone viral on TikTok and YouTube, while groups including the Women’s Funding Network and the World Bank have promoted it since April 2020.

It started as the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s response to the COVID-19 crisis when social isolation made it harder for those at risk of violence or abuse to reach out for help.

A woman crying
Pexels

The hand gesture was intended to be used on video calls as a subtle way of asking someone to check in on them.

Anyone who sees the signal shouldn’t necessarily immediately report it to the authorities but should reach out safely, if possible, to the individual who used it.

While the signal is becoming more widely known, there’s still a lot of 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,” Andrea Gunraj, the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s vice president of public engagement, said in an interview.

Here’s an example of how an individual can use the signal during a video call.

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