A distress signal made popular on TikTok may have led to the ultimate rescue of a 16-year-old girl being held in a man’s car on a Kentucky highway, according to local authorities.
A driver on Interstate 75 in Laurel County reportedly saw the girl raise up her hand, palm facing out with her thumb extended. The girl then tucked her thumb into her palm and wrapped her fingers around it, leaving the thumb seemingly trapped. That image sparked something in the driver, who recognized the gesture from TikTok videos, according to a report filed by the Lauren Country police department. He recalled that the gesture is used as a signal for help in domestic violence situations. The driver noticed the girl appeared to be in distress, so he called the police and followed the car, updating the dispatcher all along the way. It’s unclear how long the girl was issuing the distress signal before she was finally noticed.
“We don’t know how long coming down the interstate from Ohio that she had been doing this to other motorists hoping that they would notice that she was in distress,” Lauren Country police Deputy Gilbert Acciardo told local outlet WKYT.
Police eventually arrested the kidnapper, a 61-year-old man who was charged with unlawful imprisonment and possession of material showing a sexual performance. The man had reportedly traveled with the girl from Asheville, North Carolina to Ohio, not knowing the girl’s parents had reported her missing according to local news station Fox 8. The man drove back after his relatives expressed concerns over the girl’s age. It was on that return trip where her hand signals were noticed.
The hand gesture at the center of the rescue has gained viral exposure through videos on TikTok and other platforms, but originated from the Canadian Women’s Foundations’ “Signal for Help.” The gesture, which the Canadian Women’s Foundation describes as a “simple one-handed sign someone can use on a video call,” was actually originally intended as a discrete way for people in distress to signal for help over video during the pandemic.
“It can help a person silently show they need help and want someone to check in with them in a safe way,” the Foundation writes.
Violence against women, and young girls, in particular, has escalated during the pandemic resulting in what the United Nations calls “The Shadow Pandemic.” According to a report conducted by the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, domestic violence incidents increased by 8.1% after jurisdictions imposed lockdown orders.