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 on their way through Kentucky when the girl saw a TikTok hand signal for abuse.

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 has been viralized on TikTok over the past year.

The person who saw this signal called 911 to report that he suspected the girl was using the gesture in distress to communicate her concern. The motorist then drove seven miles behind the vehicle that the teen was riding in, while speaking with authorities on the phone.

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

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

The suspect, a 61-year-old man from Cherokee, North Carolina was arrested and charged with unlawful imprisonment. He was also charged with possessing material showing a minor’s sexual performance and unlawful imprisonment after the police found pornographic images of children on his phone.

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 out of curiosity, but she became afraid.

Investigators were told by the teen that she traveled with the suspect through North Carolina and Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, where he had relatives. After the family discovered she was minor, and her parents reported her missing, they fled. She said that she had been trying unsuccessfully to attract attention from other motorists as they traveled through Ohio until one driver finally noticed.

A woman demonstrating the "Signal for Help" hand gesture

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

Investigators believe the perpetrator believed she was simply waving at other cars. He didn’t pay her any mind. Officer Acciardo gave the girl a commendation 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

The hand gesture was created to be used in video calls to ask for someone’s attention.

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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