Looking For A Sign

By Rick Dougherty

Social media has been a blessing and a curse for those of us who try to battle violence against women.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms have allowed organizations like Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence to spread our message.  Unfortunately, as many of us are well aware, social media has also given platforms to Incels, Mgtow, and just general misogynistic and bullying behaviors.  It has given abusers access to more potential victims, and another outlet to spread false information about women who reject them. 

Luckily, one social media trend has actually served to help save a sixteen-year-old girl who went missing. 

A Happy Ending to a Horrible Story

On Thursday, November 4th, sixty-one-year-old James Herbert Brick was arrested by the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky.  Brick resides in Cherokee, North Carolina.  When Brick was arrested, a sixteen-year-old girl from North Carolina was found in his car.  According to the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office, when investigators looked through Brick’s phone, they found pictures that “allegedly portrayed a juvenile female in a sexual manner.” (Acevedo,2021)

How was James Herbert Brick caught?

What led to this young woman being saved, and returned to her family in Asheville, North Carolina?

Finding a silver Toyota on a highway four states away from the home of a missing girl is the law-enforcement version of finding a needle in a haystack.  Without knowing a description of the suspected abductor or what type of vehicle he may be driving; the odds were certainly stacked against a teenager who must have been petrified of her situation.

A Sign of Hope

No matter how scared she was at the time, the young lady stayed level-headed enough to use a clandestine hand single that has been circulating throughout the internet among victims and survivors of domestic violence.  Luckily, a passing driver recognized the signal being flashed by the passenger of the car, and contacted the authorities. 

According to the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office, the signal was commonly known “to represent violence at home – I need help – domestic violence” on TikTok. 

The driver called 911, asserting that the passenger in the silver Toyota, “appeared to be in distress.”

NBC News is reporting that, “Brick is facing charges for unlawful imprisonment and possession of material showing a sex performance by a minor over the age of 12 but under age 18, according to the sheriff’s office.” (Acevedo, 2021)

Knowing the Sign When You See It

The Laurel County Sheriff’s Office never stated definitively which sign was given in this case.  It is possible that the specific information needs to be kept confidential at the moment for purposes of trial.  That being said, a hand gesture that was originally popularized by the Canadian Women’s Foundation has spread through TikTok (ForSure7, 2021).

While the office didn’t comment on the gesture, they have uploaded a video to YouTube that shows a sheriff demonstrating that particular gesture.  That video was uploaded on November 6th; two days after Brick was apprehended.  There is a link to that video, and other descriptions of the gesture at the bottom of this blog (WHAS11, 2021).

Essentially, to make the signal, lift a hand with the palm facing towards the intended recipient.  Keep the thumb tucked over the palm, with the four fingers pointing towards the sky.  Once the recipient sees the first part of the sign, fold the four fingers over the thumb.  With the movements being so subtle, it is not likely to draw much attention from an abuser, and it can easily be explained away if it does attract questions (#SignalForHelp, 2020). 

Awareness Is Key

Last month was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and that is very important in our community.  Not only do we want to raise awareness to the size and scope of the problem; but we also want to raise the profile of other forms of abuse that aren’t physical, while also helping bystanders identify abusive situations.  Something as simple as sharing this hand signal could potentially save lives in a very tangible way. 

We are inundated with pictures and videos of our friends on social media.  From vacations to fancy dinners to school functions to multi-level-marketing jobs, the people in our lives often share images of themselves to the point that it can be annoying.  Those seemingly mundane social media posts could provide the lone connection of victim has to the outside world.  Even with a controlling partner who has access to the accounts, these covert codes can subvert the walls an abuser puts up to trap a victim.

The best part is that it takes practically no time at all to share this story with friends.  It is simple.  We don’t have to feel powerless.  It is hard to change laws.  It is hard to get the local police department to take domestic violence seriously.  It is hard to convince a friend who is in an abusive relationship to leave.  It is easy to let someone know about this potentially-life-saving signal.  Imagine what could happen if we all told five acquaintances. 


Acevedo, N. (2021, November 8). Missing N.C. Teen found after using TikTok hand sign alerting she was in Danger. NBCNews.com. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missing-n-c-teen-found-after-using-tiktok-hand-sign-n1283401.

ForSure7. (2021). Violence Against Women . TikTok. Retrieved from https://www.tiktok.com/foryou?is_copy_url=1&is_from_webapp=v1.

#SignalForHelp. Canadian Women’s Foundation. (2020.)., from https://www.instagram.com/p/CHvIal5r3B_/.

WHAS11. (2021, November 6). Watch: Kentucky sheriff shows how to do Tiktok Hand Signal for help that led to Teen’s rescue. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6XOeVkQYEk.

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