Jacob Wetterling Resource Center manager talks about how to keep kids safe
Alison Feigh, program manager with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, tells people that the best was to prevent child abduction and assault is to have adults who are invested in the lives of kids.
Feigh, a childhood classmate of Jacob, who was kidnapped and murdered on Oct. 11, 1989, near Paynesville, was one of the many people whose lives were affected by Wetterling’s abduction, which wasn’t solved until last year when the location of his remains were revealed by Danny Heinrich. Heinrich confessed to the kidnapping and murder of Wetterling as well as the assault of Jared Scheierl.
“Jacob was abducted when he was 11,” Feigh said. “Jacob and I grew up together, so that’s a big part of why I got involved in this work. When he was taken, his family started a nonprofit to help crimes from happening to kids.”
As the result of a grant the East Central Regional Library system obtained from Resource Training and Solutions, Feigh came to speak to a group of community members at North Branch Area Library April 11 as part of a parenting education workshop.
Personal safety for young children
Feigh said some of the work she and others do at the resource center focuses on dispelling myths about how to keep kids out of dangerous situations.
She noted the “stranger, danger” advice many parents have been giving to kids for years isn’t all that effective, given that about 93 percent of the time when kids are sexually abused it’s by someone known to them.
“We focus on the behavior of the person, not how we know them,” she said. “It’s also mixed messages: If we say don’t talk to people you don’t know, the first day of school every adult they meet they don’t know, from the playground monitors to the school nurse.”
Feigh said it’s a good idea for parents to set up personal safety rules with kids, and if someone violates these rules, the children should check with their parents first to make sure the action is acceptable. She said frequently talking about “what if” scenarios is helpful.
For example, she said a parent could ask their child “What if the neighbor’s dog had puppies and he wanted you to come over and look at them?”
The goal in that situation is to get the child to step back, think and tell the neighbor that he or she will have to check with a parent first before coming over. That way, the parent knows the situation and can make a decision as to whether or not it’s safe.
Personal safety for teens
Feigh said sometimes parents think that when their children enter their teen years personal safety advice no longer needs to be drilled into them. This is actually the time at which children are the most vulnerable.
“The most victimized segment of the population of the United States are 12 to 17 year olds,” she said.
Feigh said abuse of children is so prevalent at this time for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is that kids are searching for attention and affection during their teen years. People who prey on children know this, and they work on forming relationships with kids, especially ones who might not be receiving much attention.
Feigh said continuing to go over “what if” situations with kids as they age is still very important, but through her work with teens she’s learned about how to make those conversations with them more comfortable.
“They have said they do better with what ifs if they don’t have to make direct eye contact with their parents,” she said. If you’re sitting in the car (where eye contact doesn’t often happen) you could ask your kid, “What if you’re at a party and somebody is doing something that’s making you uncomfortable?”
Feigh said teens have told her they also don’t want parents to use the names of real people in what if conversations.
“That freaks them out,” she said. “Don’t say, ‘What if your soccer coach John asked you to. …’ They’ll say, ‘What’s wrong with John? What’s John’s deal?’ They don’t like that cloud of suspicion on people, if it’s not earned. Say things like, “What if a coach, what if a neighbor, what if an older kid.”
Feigh said safety conversations should also extend to the internet because that’s often how children get into dangerous situations nowadays, from sending and receiving provocative picture messages to talking to people they’ve never met through social media sites or dating apps. She explained that children don’t often tell parents about these encounters because they’re afraid it’ll lead to them getting their phones or laptops taken away. She stressed it’s important that the children don’t feel like they’d be punished for telling a parent about someone behaving inappropriately toward them online.
Setting up a safety net
Feigh said making sure kids have a “safety net” of at least five adults they can talk to makes a difference when it comes to their personal security. Kids who have caring adults in their lives are less likely to be victimized.
Feigh said she was part of a panel that was discussing how sex offenders target kids and one of the people on the panel worked on treating sex offenders.
“Offenders can be both genders, different races, socioeconomic groups, all over the place,” Feigh said. “This particular sex offender happened to have kids in elementary school. The treatment provider said one of the ways her client got away with it for so long was how he picked his targets. He would go to the elementary school and watch how the parents picked up their kids. There were parents who got out of their car and said, ‘Show me your artwork! Who has the class hamster? What did you guys sing in choir?”
“He’d leave those kids alone because he’d see that connection. He’d see that safety net. The parents who drove up with no conversation, no communication — the kid jumped in the back seat and they peeled away — he would say to his kids, ‘Invite those ones over to play.’”
With the discovery of Jacob’s remains and the confession by Heinrich, Feigh said this last year has been a whirlwind of emotion.
“We live in this legacy of Jacob and who Jacob was, and we do this training in his honor,” she said. “This last year has been insane. That’s the only word I can use to describe it. I was really angry that people were talking about how Jacob died instead of how Jacob lived. I didn’t want the offender to write the last chapter in Jacob’s story. He shouldn’t even get a paragraph.”
Initially struggling on how to comprehend the newly learned information about Jacob’s abduction and death, Feigh said she received a call from a friend who is a junior high soccer coach in Maryland.
“She asked, ‘What was Jacob’s soccer jersey number?’” Feigh said. “Then she said, ‘Would it be respectful, would it be OK if all the kids just put an 11 on their faces with sharpie and we let them live out Jacob on the soccer field?’ It was the first time in days that I had smiled. I was like, ‘Yes, this is what it’s all about.’”
For more information about keeping kids safe, visit the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center online at tinyurl.com/jwrc11 to find safety tips, information on workshops and webcasts, victim assistance, and books for purchase that can help parents gently talk to their kids about sensitive issues.