GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - In light of the recent tragic abduction and murder of 10-year-old Jessica Ridgeway in Denver, many Colorado families have been left reeling with shock at the senseless killing.
Ridgeway was likely kidnapped by a stranger Oct. 5 and her body was discovered five days later. To prevent crimes like this, family advocates and the Mesa County Sheriff's Office both stress the importance of talking to children of all ages to educate them about safety concerns and how to react in any emergency situation.
According to Joy Thompson, a family support advocate for the Western Slope Center for Children, "it's not typical to have stranger abductions," and it's more likely for abuse to occur from someone the child knows. That said, children need to feel they can go to their guardian for any reason, especially if someone is scaring them. Parents should additionally always be on the watch for dramatic changes in behavior with their kids, like "out-of-the-norm anger or sadness." It's a warning sign of abuse.
"Start early with your children by having an open dialogue," she noted. "Trust your instincts and investigate."
The Western Slope Center for Children provides services for child victims of sexual abuse, and their families, in a supportive environment that's meant to reduce trauma and promote healing. Its staff provides education and counseling services for those in need.
"It's imperative to encourage families to have their households be non-secret households," Thompson said. "Kids need to know they have a voice. We don't want to scare our kids, but we need to make them aware that issues can happen."
Thompson also said parents need to communicate to their children that it's OK to say no to anyone making them uncomfortable, and they can fight back if someone touches them inappropriately or tries to snatch them. Plus, parents shouldn't be embarrassed to teach their young kids about their private parts - where people shouldn't be touching them.
"Children should learn how to react if someone approaches them," Mesa County Sheriff's Department Deputy Chad Williams added. "How to fight someone off, kick and scream. Teach them to yell out that they don't know a person by saying 'this person is not my mom or dad.' Train them, and they'll fall back on what they know."
Both Thompson and Williams said it's extremely important for children walking to school to do so in groups to prevent targeting. This goes for going to malls or parks as well.
"Have parents walk with (their kids) several times to identify neighbors and safe houses," Williams said. "Tell children to run in the opposite direction if they're being followed by a car, and tell them not to accept a ride from anyone that's not their parents."
Education is a key component to avoiding child abductions, Williams noted. "Stranger Danger" programs taught to young children in school do help prevent scary situations, however Williams stressed the importance of continued "stranger" talks with kids as they develop.
"The majority of abductions are preteens and teenagers," Williams said. "We teach 4- to 5-year-olds 'stranger danger' ideas, but you also need to talk to kids as they get older. We assume older kids know what they're doing, but reinforcement is necessary."
For more information about the Western Slope Center for Children, visit www.wscchildren.org. To learn more about safety clinics offered through the sheriff's office, visit www.sheriff.mesacounty.us.