I just spent the evening with a whole group of very nice people who wanted more than anything in the world to be somewhere else.
It was our community’s annual Walk and Candlelight Vigil for the Prevention of Child Abuse. It’s a hard night, in part because along one wall of the building where we meet there’s a clothesline of T-shirts decorated with the names of people who’ve died as a result of abuse. It gets a little longer every year. Looking at any of the T-shirts is tough, but the toddler- or baby-size ones are simply brutal to behold.
It’s odd, the things that people allow to continue. I would bet that every one of you, if you saw a child start walking into oncoming traffic, would reach out a hand and pull that young person to safety. But the next question to ask is, how many of us have turned a blind eye to something that just didn’t feel right, ignored actions that should have been responded to with more than a raised eyebrow.
We had a terrific speaker this year, a woman named Alison Feigh who works as a program coordinator at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. For readers not from the upper Midwest, Jacob Wetterling was about 11 when he was abducted by a masked man, 25 years ago, and hasn’t been seen since. It was a shocking, devastating crime - one that anyone who’s heard of it has never forgotten.
The saddest thing, though, is that despite the tragedy of Jacob’s abduction, most crimes against children are committed by people the children know – relatives and friends of their parents, youth group leaders, and other people in authority.
Ms. Feigh is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker, and she shared a wealth of information about how, as adults, we should help the children navigate the dangerous waters of growing up – to have their independence and their safety, too.
A couple of things in particular that she said stuck with me. First, she always tells schoolchildren that they should make a list of five people they trust, people they can tell stuff to and be confident that they’ll listen and not ignore them. She said most children start out with far more than five, and can list them all, but the older they get, the more their lists shrink, so her specific challenge to adults was to make a list of five young people who would be willing to come to them and share something that was bothering them.
The next thing she said was that in an interview with a child predator, someone who repeatedly victimized children, he told them that the way he screened for potential victims was to pick up his kids at school and just watch as the children leaving school were greeted by their parents. If there were hugs, smiles, and requests to see homework and class projects, he’d pass them by, but if the parent pulled up, the children climbed in the backseat without any engagement or conversation, those were the kids he considered targeting. Think about that tomorrow when you’re seeing your kids or grandkids.