The January 7 abduction and sexual assault of a local middle school student, and the subsequent attempted abduction of a second, triggered a range of complex emotions as Sonoma residents grappled with the grim news.
The difficult process is familiar to Jennifer Blackwood, local liaison for Kidpower International, an organization dedicated to keeping kids safe.
“The feelings range from alarm, terror, too-close-to-home fears, and anger,” Blackwood said. But a disciplined adult response is what children need in the wake of a crime like this one. “It is important that as parents we get our own emotions in check as much as possible in order to calmly communicate with our children and teens. They need to know that they don’t have to worry about our emotions or feelings when talking about theirs.”
Blackwood is a certified Kidpower instructor who teaches personal safety workshops all over the North Bay. There are classes available for children aged three to five and five to 12, as well as teens, adults, and individuals who are “differently-abled.”
“That’s the beauty of how Kidpower teaches. It can be adapted and modified for anyone, mobile or wheelchair-bound, sight-impaired, regardless of age, language, intellectual capacity, etcetera. The skills don’t change much, but an eight-year-old will use them differently than an adult.”
Kidpower International was created in 1989 after founder Irene van der Zande had a frightening incident on a school field trip and decided she and her young children needed to be better armed. First, van der Zande got certified in self-defense; then, she gathered a team of social workers, mental health professionals, and law enforcement personnel to assist in her creation of a teachable curriculum she could make available to individuals and groups. The program, now available in 60 locations in the U.S. and internationally, has trained more than six million people how to protect their personal safety.
“Just talking about safety without actually skill-building at some point is not very effective and can actually raise anxiety levels,” Blackwood said. “Think of how we teach water safety or how to cross the street to our children. Not by meetings or books alone. Nobody learns deep water skills from a handout read in the bleachers and then jumping in the deep end of the pool. We learn by doing.”
One in five girls will be victims of child sexual abuse, as will one in 20 boys, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and children between the ages of seven and 13 are most vulnerable. The vast majority of victims of child sexual abuse are harmed by people they know well; stranger abductions are exceedingly rare.
“But it did happen here,” Blackwood said. “This “stat” just did happen in our own community. The small town “illusion of safety” issue is pervasive here, until something happens and that illusion is severely challenged. But the statistics do not suddenly change because there was an incident. Your child walking to school may not be at any greater risk than they were before the crime took place.”
In addition to the workshops Blackwood teaches locally, the Kidpower website contains hundreds of free articles to help parents safeguard their children. “Everything from Halloween trick-or-treating safety to how to communicate with family after a mass shooting at a school. There are articles with tips and skills specifically about keeping children safer from kidnappings/abductions. Use the website! I can’t stress enough the value in getting on the Kidpower website for resources and education,” Blackwood said.