Alison Feigh sat next to Jacob Wetterling in sixth-grade math class. Less than two months into the school year, his desk was empty.
Wetterling was abducted from St. Joseph by a masked gunman in 1989, 24 years ago Oct. 22. The case is still open.
Feigh, now in her 30s, has devoted her life’s work to “educating and assisting families and communities to address and prevent the exploitation of children, by putting online and in-person safety information in the hands of every man, woman and child,” the mission statement of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, where she serves as program coordinator.
Feigh hasn’t given up hope and urged attendees at the Compassion Action Network’s fall forum Oct. 24 to remember that hope is a verb in her keynote address.
“We don’t just sit back and hope; we actually roll up our sleeves and do something,” she said.
The Compassion Action Network, striving to address community needs throughout Anoka County, selected “Dimensions of Violence: Creating Hope and Sustaining Change in Our Community” as the topic of its biannual forum, held at the Anoka-Hennepin Educational Service Center.
In Minnesota, one in five suffers from a mental health illness that causes him or her to contemplate or commit suicide. One in four children is bullied and one in three people suffers sexual or domestic violence by mid-life, according to Donna McDonald, violence prevention coordinator for Anoka County.
“None of us are happy with where we are on that,” McDonald said.
Anoka-Hennepin District 11 Superintendent Dennis Carlson and Feigh were the forum’s two featured speakers.
Carlson highlighted the district’s efforts to aid victims of violence, particularly bullying.
Technology has changed the face of bullying. Often, rather than swinging a punch, kids send a biting text or plaster someone’s Facebook wall with nasty messages.
“It is invisible violence for us adults,” Carlson said. It may be harder to detect than physical violence – your child doesn’t come home with a black eye – but it’s just as real.
The district has 13 clinical mental health professionals on staff to work though a variety of issues with students. It hopes to add 11 more if grant money comes in from the state, Carlson said. There are waiting lists for mental health services in the elementary schools, he said.
Partnerships with 51 community churches have helped more than 2,000 students, particularly those living in poverty, to obtain needed resources, according to Carlson.
“I am most proud of the work we have done together,” Carlson said.
Speaking next, Feigh kept the focus on kids. Throughout her presentation, she mixed facts about personal safety with humorous, shocking and moving stories.
“It’s a kid’s job to be a kid and a grown-up’s job to keep kids safe,” she said early on in her presentation.
But, often, people don’t know what words to use or approach to take when talking about personal safety with their children, according to Feigh. They don’t want to scare them, for one thing, Feigh said.
Having a conversation about personal safety with kids should be similar to teaching them about fire safety, she said.
When discussing the latter, one doesn’t go into graphic detail about what a third-degree burn looks like; one teaches the basics – stop, drop and roll.
“We want to give them enough information so that they’re not frozen by fear, but they’re moved to act,” Feigh said.
Feigh’s personal safety basics for children are: If you have an “uh-oh” feeling in your stomach, tell a trusted adult. If someone is trying to get you to break a safety rule, tell a trusted adult. If someone asks you to do something you are not comfortable with, take five steps backward, say “no” and tell a trusted adult. She suggests that all children have at least five adults they can turn to so that if one of them dismisses their concerns, they have another adult to ask for help.
Everyone’s heard of stranger danger.
The idiom sticks with you, but that might not be a good thing. Most adults have good hearts and want only the best for children, Feigh said. Even your child’s bus driver is a stranger on the first day of school, she said.
When it comes to an individual’s interaction with a child, “we focus on the behavior, not the relationship,” Feigh said.
Most sex offenses against juveniles are committed by someone they know. Fifty-nine percent are committed by acquaintances, 34 percent by family members and only 7 percent by unknown parties, Feigh said, citing a 2000 study by Howard Snyder.
Furthermore, about 2,000 missing children are reported each day in the United States. Of that number, only 115 each year are stereotypical non-family abductions, Feigh said.
Another common image is someone in a van tempting kids with candy.
“It’s not candy or gifts that’s taking kids,” Feigh said. “It’s attention and affection,” the two most common lures.
That was the case for Robin Escobar’s daughter.
Escobar lost her daughter to prostitution and sex trafficking at the age of 13. As a parent, she admits to getting somewhat “caught up” and urges other parents to “teach your kids before it happens. Show them the love and show them the compassion.” Otherwise, they will seek it elsewhere, Escobar said.
Thankfully, Escobar and her daughter established a safe word, so when she received a phone call from her daughter years later, Escobar knew that she was being held against her will and was able to get her out of trouble.
Escobar, herself a survivor of prostitution and sex trafficking, attended the Compassion Action Network forum to represent Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based organization dedicated to helping women and girls escape prostitution and sex trafficking.
Power in numbers
Bystanders of violence outnumber perpetrators 40 to one, according to McDonald, so if each and every person plays his or her part, the world can send a message that violence is not tolerated and perpetrators will have to listen.
“One of the best ways to get involved is to start talking. … You never know who’s listening,” said Krysta Sather, community education and volunteer coordinator with Alexandra House, which serves victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Sather was one of four featured in a violence prevention video produced by the Compassion Action Network in partnership with North Metro TV. Also featured were McDonald with The Alliance for a Violence-Free Anoka County, Cmdr. Brian Podany with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and Marlene Jazierski with Partners in Faith.
“All of us together should be able to start turning that tide,” McDonald said of bystanders taking action.
The Compassion Action Network’s spring forum is set for May 8, 2014, at Zion Lutheran Church.
Olivia Koester is at firstname.lastname@example.org