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LETTER: Education and awareness essential to helping children stay safe

Many Minnesotans spent last week mourning the news they hoped would never arrive: Danny Heinrich's account of the kidnapping, sexual assault and the eventual murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling.

Jacob's kidnapping changed the way in which many of us, now adults, were parented as children.

"Stranger danger" became a household phrase.

Some of us can recall being banned from riding our bikes alone. Many of our families discussed "safe houses" and code words that would help us feel more secure in our own neighborhoods.

As a community, the loss of Jacob brought us back to a place where we feared for the safety of children, who like Jacob, deserve to live their lives free of violence. In homes across the country, family discussions again began with a near-frantic focus on being safe and being aware of other people and surroundings.

Though these conversations are incredibly important to help prevent stranger abduction, it is equally important to initiate conversations about consent and being safe even around people we know. More than 90 percent of sexual offenders are someone the child knows and trusts — a family friend or other relative, parent, a parent's significant other, a teacher, camp counselor, babysitter, or church leader. Though sexual assault takes on many different forms and can be perpetrated by people across every demographic, one thing remains the same: the survivor is never at fault.

Canvas Health's Abuse Response Services Community Education and Prevention program is just one of many community resources that works to educate parents, students, school staff and other helping professionals about both the healthy sexual development of children as well as how children and adolescents of all ages can keep their bodies safe. Programs specifically address consent, how to communicate about consent, date rape, cyberbullying, and more.

Canvas Health's Abuse Response Services offers free community presentations to schools, community organizations, churches, emergency responders, and social service agencies within Washington County. Presentations can be customized to meet the specific needs of the requested audience or location.

The Abuse Response Services program also provides direct services to victims of sexual assault and teen dating violence, ages 13 and older. The program provides 24-7 crisis hotline 651-777-1117 and emergency room advocacy during forensic exams, individual counseling, support groups, and legal advocacy. All services are offered at no charge. The Abuse Response Services team can be contacted at 651-251-5079.

Yvonne LeMieux

Supervisor of Abuse Response Services

Canvas Health

Oakdale

Editor's note: Yvonne LeMieux is a licensed independent clinical social worker.

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