Hand signal used by missing teen developed in Canada to address pandemic violence

It’s a simple hand gesture: displaying an open palm with the thumb tucked in, and then closing your fingers over the thumb, trapping it in.

But this signal, popularized on TikTok, has the power to communicate that the person making the gesture is in need of help — something that came in handy last week when it led to the rescue of a missing 16-year-old girl after a motorist in Kentucky noticed the teen making the signal at passing drivers.

The “Signal for Help” did not originate on TikTok, however. It was initially developed by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in April 2020 to tackle the spectre of domestic violence, which the organization knew would be even more dangerous during the isolation of the pandemic.

“As the pandemic started, we know from our research here and around the world, that when there’s things that are major disruptions like pandemics, like natural disasters, the risk of gender based violence goes up,” Suzanne Duncan, vice president of philanthropy at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.

“And so early in the pandemic, we were quite worried about what we were going to do to make sure that women and gender-diverse people and their families were safe, especially since many of them were really stuck at home with their abuser.”

She explained that an agency, Juniper Park, worked with them pro-bono to come up with the Signal for Help and boost it online.

They showed how to use it in a video where a woman carrying on a video call with someone carefully displayed the hand signal to the camera while carrying on a conversation about unrelated topics.

The idea was that those who were being victimized might need a silent way to ask for help because their abuser might be in the room.

“We know that a lot of folks who are facing violence are often very monitored online, so that might mean their texts or their emails are being watched,” Duncan added, saying this signal is “a way to leave no trace during a video call.”

Their fears about domestic violence rising during the pandemic were not unfounded. In February, Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline announced that they had fielded more than 20,000 calls between September and December 2020, compared to a little over 12,000 the previous year.

According to Duncan, around “one in three Canadians” have seen the signal and would hopefully be able to identify it if they saw it used by a victim, but the more people who see it, the better.

“The thing about a signal is that it’s only as good as it’s responded to,” said Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement with the Canadian Women’s Foundation told CTV News.

“So I think that it’s really important for everybody to know that the Signal for Help is something that people may use sometimes in a video call. It’s a very common place [signal] for someone to say: ‘Hey, check in with me, I need you to check in and just see that I’m safe.’”

Duncan added that the recent story of a teenager being rescued because of the signal is not only a positive sign of how it can work, but something that will allow even more people to become familiar with the signal.

The 16-year-old girl was in a car travelling in Kentucky when a driver in another car saw her making the Signal for Help and called 911.

Police say that driver continued following the car for about 10 kilometres, until police arrived and arrested 61-year-old James Herbert Brick.

Duncan praised the teen for her quick thinking in applying a hand gesture designed for video calls into a signal for other motorists, saying it was “really quite smart and clever of her to think of doing that.”

Since its creation, the signal has gone viral on TikTok, evolving into a sign of not just struggling with domestic abuse, but of needing help in general.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation says they’re now working on releasing a responders’ guide for those who might recognize the symbol and want to help a friend or colleague in need, but aren’t sure what to do or what resources are available.

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