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Program promotes healing and safety

One of the best ways to keep kids safe and away from sex offenders is to provide a network of support around them. That was the message presented Friday night by Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, at the Northland Arboretu...

Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, speaks about ways to keep kids safe and away from sex offenders Friday at the Northland Arboretum. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, speaks about ways to keep kids safe and away from sex offenders Friday at the Northland Arboretum. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

One of the best ways to keep kids safe and away from sex offenders is to provide a network of support around them.

That was the message presented Friday night by Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, at the Northland Arboretum.

Feigh spoke for about 90 minutes to a group of about 25 community members and presented a wealth of information via a program called "When Faith Hurts." The event was put together by the Mercy Task Force from St. Francis Catholic Church. The task force's goal is to study ways the Catholic community can promote atonement, healing and where fitting, forgiveness.

Feigh does a lot of training on educating and informing communities about how offenders and abusers operate, and what they can do as a community to make it harder for offenders to target children in their community. One method she teaches is for kids to create a safety net of five adults they can rely on.

"Every kid should have five grownups in their life that form a safety net," Feigh said. "So if something bad happens, they have five grownups they can ask for help."

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Sometimes it's someone in the safety net breaking the rules or abusing the child, Feigh said, so it's important for that child to have multiple people to turn to for help.

Adults and parents should trust their gut instincts when it comes to seeing red flags in an organization like a faith community, Feigh said. If someone's practices or behavior around children gives you an uneasy feeling, tell someone in the community about it.

It's important for a faith community or organization to have common language and policies in place regarding abuse, Feigh said, so there's something to consult if an issue or red flags come up.

Being involved in a child's life is a good deterrent, Feigh said, because the number one lure offenders use is attention and affection. If a child is loved and supported at home, they won't have to look to someone else for that attention. Parents should also take ownership and help kids other than their own, she said.

"No kid is an island," Feigh said.

It's difficult to speak out and support other kids, Feigh said, because parents don't want to tell other parents what to do or how to parent. It's not about judgement, though, it's about providing support for kids from different places.

Offenders are good at what they do, Feigh said, so it's up to parents and adult to join together and do better.

"We need to be looking and thinking, 'How can we surround this person with healthy support?'" Feigh said.

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St. Francis member Leonard Skillings said the presentation showed him there's a lot of good things happening in regards to preventing abuse. The five-person net of support is a big thing families should help their kids develop, he said.

It's great to see the St. Francis taking a proactive approach toward education and prevention, Skillings said, by putting on events like "When Faith Hurts."

"My only thing is I wish more people took advantage of it," Skillings said.

It would be great to see people who may have been victims of abuse to come to these events, Skillings said. He understands they may be angry with the church if the abuse happened in a faith community, but the church wants to support them.

"We want to be able to love them and support them," Skillings said. "We certainly understand their fears, their angry that they have toward us or toward the church. We're not happy either."

Skillings said the Catholic church is doing a good job of addressing current and past issues of clergy abuse, but the church still needs to help and heal the victims.

Faith communities like churches can be wonderful places for kids to be encouraged and to grow, Feigh said, but they can also do the opposite. Offenders often go to faith communities to target children, she said, because there's easy access to children and members are trusting and looking for volunteers to work with kids.

There's a sense in society that sex offenders are the "other," Feigh said. But there's no physical tells for an offender, and there's no gender, race or age to look for.

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"We create them," Feigh said. "They're coming out of our communities."

For this reason, it's not helpful to teach kids to be fearful of strangers, Feigh said, because children often know their abusers. It's not a shadowy figure in a dark alley, it's someone like a coach, teacher, or pastor.

"That's that leap that we need to help folks make," Feigh said. "We have to not pay attention to how we know the person but how are they making us feel."

Many victims of abuse will go to a pastor or priest to first disclose abuse, Feigh said. In order to make sure they're properly trained for this, the foundation offers a three-day training program called Chaplains for Children.

"Train faith leaders so that if those are the first people that kids are going to," Feigh said. "They're getting a positive response, because it does impact their spirituality or their growth."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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