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An important lesson

February 15, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
Last week, a Belmont County sheriff's deputy made local headlines for teaching elementary school children the dangers of strangers.

There obviously and unfortunately is a need for this type of education -- but it is not the most important thing about which we should be warning our youngsters.

First, let's talk about "stranger danger": Deputy Ervin Fulst said in the Feb. 8 article that he saw a film in which a man goes to a playground and asks for help looking for his dog in the woods, or poses as a fireman and says he needs to ask some questions.

I know many children, especially in our small towns, want to be good Samaritans or good citizens, but they should know to find an adult they trust before going anywhere with a stranger.

Then there are some strangers who forgo trickery and simply snatch young girls out of alleyways, like the horrifying incident in North Wheeling one year ago.

I believe, nonetheless, that MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than teaching "stranger danger" is to teach the tricks that the adults next door -- or in the next room -- might play on them.

For an article I wrote for the Sunday Arts & Living section last year about child sexual abuse, Leslie Vassilaros said: "We teach children about 'stranger danger,' but there are people we know and love and trust who can hurt our children, and these people are even more dangerous because we do trust them."

Vassilaros sees it every day as the executive director of the Harmony House Children's Advocacy Center in Wheeling, which provides forensic interviews and referral services for children who report sexual abuse.

The U.S. Department of Justice says nine out of 10 child sexual abuse victims know their abuser. Nine out of 10!

To me, that means that talks with our children about inappropriate touching and how to say "no" to people they know and/or love are NINE TIMES MORE IMPORTANT than teaching them about stranger danger.

Let me say it another way: For every time you warn your child about strangers, you should warn them nine times about what to do if someone they know assaults them.

Think about it. How many times A WEEK do you see headlines in the Wheeling newspapers about people -- your neighbors -- being charged with sexually abusing a child in their care? Now, how many stranger abductions of children have we had in the Ohio Valley in the past year? Only one comes readily to mind.

So what can you do? Well, one thing is to use what's out there to help you teach your children. One such program that gives parents and educators the tools they need to successfully teach children to protect themselves from "tricky people" is Yello Dyno. Using non-threatening and fun songs and videos, the message is clear: It teaches children that their bodies are their own and they should always tell if someone touches them inappropriately. It teaches them stranger danger, too, and gives them tips - disguised in fun lyrics that research shows are more easily recalled when in a fight-or-flight situation -- on how to get away safely. I recommend this curriculum for every school and every home.

In addition, Linda Reeves of the Upper Ohio Valley Sexual Assault Help Center in Wheeling provides a free, educational program for young children called "Know What to Do," which focuses on personal body safety. There is a parent component, too. She can do individual or group sessions. For information, call 304-234-1783 or 740-282-6022.

In the meantime, here are some prevention tips for parents, provided by the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services Inc. (I've added some things in parentheses):

1. Teach children the proper names for sexual body parts. Many children are not able to tell about the abuse because they don't know what words to use (or feel embarrassed using the words they know).

2. Teach children the difference between safe and unsafe touches. Talk about appropriate (and inappropriate) physical affection.

3. Tell children it's OK to say "no" to touches or behaviors that make them uncomfortable, (even if it's an adult who is doing it).

4. Remind children that safety rules apply to all adults, not just strangers.

5. Teach children not to keep secrets about touching, no matter what the person says. Encourage children to tell you immediately if someone touches them or behaves in a way that is not OK.

7. Believe your child, don't panic and call the police (or the Sexual Assault Help Center in Wheeling, 800-884-7242) if he or she tells you she has been touched inappropriately.

Finally, remember if it does happen to your child, it's not your fault and you shouldn't try to protect the abuser, no matter who it is. The health and safety of your child should be your top priority.


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