FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Just as they need a PIN number to withdraw money from an automated teller machine, some Florida parents now must know the secret passwords when picking their children up from school.
No password, no child.
With so many fragmented families in the community, schools have become a battleground where parents, grandparents and other family members try to snatch children of whom they don't have legal custody.
Schoolteachers and office workers say they have been forced to become pseudo-police officers, guarding students from feuding family members.
And they say it is a daunting task to keeping track of who is legally entitled to take home some 250,500 elementary and middle students in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
"Everyone is so paranoid when someone comes to the office to pick up a child," said Helga Finnigan, a Boca Raton elementary school principal.
"In the past five years, safety of schoolchildren has become a major issue that we've been bombarded with."
And although schools try to be vigilant, their systems aren't foolproof. Sometimes, a conniving family member can sneak a child out of school.
That happened at a Hollywood, Fla., elementary school Monday when a Lauderdale Lakes woman lied to the school and fled with her 10-year-old niece, of whom she had lost custody because of neglect.
The child was found unharmed, and the aunt was charged with kidnapping.