Missing teenager rescued after using viral TikTok hand signal to passing driver

The signal had been shared on TikTok as a subtle way of indicating domestic abuse or distress.

woman waving hand out car window
Missing teenager rescued after using viral TikTok hand signal to seek help

The signal had been shared on TikTok as a subtle way of indicating domestic abuse or distress.

A young woman in Kentucky, United States was rescued after she performed a hand gesture to signal distress that she'd seen on TikTok. The 16-year-old, who had been reported missing by her family two days previously, caught the attention of a passing motorist as she was being driven in a silver Toyota.

The passing driver called the police after recognising what the hand motion meant. They reported "a female passenger in the vehicle making hand gestures that are known on the social media platform TikTok to represent violence at home – I need help – domestic violence," according to a statement from the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office. The girl, who the member of public described as "[appearing] to be in distress" was being driven by an older man.

The hand signal involves holding up your hand, palm facing outwards, and tucking in your thumb. Then, the remaining four fingers are closed around the thumb, so it looks a little like a fist in shape.

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The gesture has been doing the rounds on TikTok, encouraged as a means for people to seek subtle help if they are experiencing domestic abuse or other forms of distress.

In response to the police report, officers sought out the Toyota and pulled it over under the guise of a traffic stop. Further investigation revealed that the teenager - who was from Asheville in North Carolina - had been reported missing by her parents days earlier. A 61-year-old man was arrested at the scene and charged with unlawful imprisonment.

"The female juvenile told Sheriff's investigators that she had gotten [in the car] with the male subject and traveled through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and into Ohio where the accused had relatives," read the the Laurel County Sheriff’s Office statement. "When the male subject’s relatives realised that the female in his custody was under age and reported missing, the accused left Ohio traveling southbound and the female juvenile then began attempting to get motorists attention to call 911."

woman waving hand out window

While it's a relief to hear that the 16-year-old's actions led to her receiving the help she needed to escape on this occasion, domestic abuse charity Women's Aid is eager to issue a warning to anyone sharing or exercising such 'distress codes'.

"Social media signals such as these can be useful, but I would urge caution, as signs can become widely known, meaning perpetrators of domestic abuse are likely to find out about them," Teresa Parker, Women's Aid's Head of Media Relations and Communications, tells Marie Claire. "Using a hand signal that an abuser knows while you are with them could potentially become a catalyst for an attack or further abuse, if they see you doing it," she adds.

"If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can go to the Women's Aid website and visit the Survivor’s Handbook, where you can get information about safety planning if you are thinking of leaving. You can also contact our Live Chat service or email us for support. Additionally, our website includes a directory of local domestic abuse services and helplines you can reach out to."

Catriona Harvey-Jenner

Cat is a Senior Editor at Marie Claire, covering news and features across the brand's key purpose pillars, including women's issues, politics, career, mental health, female empowerment and equality, as well as books.