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Keeping Vermont Kids Safe

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Linda Johnson Linda Johnson

Montpelier, Vermont - July 29, 2008

In the wake of the Brooke Bennett tragedy, child victim advocates are talking about what parents and the community can do to keep kids safe; from spotting signs of abuse, to spotting an abuser.

Last year there were 322 substantiated cases of child sex abuse in Vermont. While that number is down 60 percent from 15 years ago, experts say with more information and a focus on prevention, Vermont's kids can be even safer.

"I want to take this opportunity to set aside debate about changing our laws and bring attention to what we can do to empower parents and communities with the tools they need to prevent crimes and keep the children of Vermont safe," said Gov. Jim Douglas, R-Vermont.

Governor Douglas says since the Brooke Bennett tragedy, many Vermonters have asked him what they can do to help prevent and spot abuse. So he called together experts to talk about this difficult topic.

"Prevention is the key to keeping our kids safe," said Linda Johnson of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont.

Child advocates say 92 percent of sex abuse is from someone the child knows; either a family member or friend. And it typically starts with grooming, where the abuser works their way into the child and family's life by offering to pick them up after school, taking them to sporting events, or buying them gifts.

"All the while decreasing the child and the family's sensitivity to increased affection, sexual jokes, to horse play, to moving closer and closer to sexual abuse," explained Johnson.

Experts say almost half of abusers are kids, and parents and caregivers should always have their kids keep the door open when they play. And look for trouble signs-- like too much tickling.

"If you see your child playing with an adult or another child and there's something about that play that makes you feel uncomfortable, believe yourself," advised Johnson.

And they say it's important to teach children the appropriate names for body parts so they know how to tell what hurts and where.

"This is very, very important," said Johnson. "Offenders tell us this. Show me a child who knows nothing about her body -- and I'll show you my next victim."

The state is in the process of overhauling how it deals with child abuse and neglect cases. Officials say by September 1 they will have a new toll-free number set up so there is one centralized place for people to report suspected abuse.

As for the 60 percent drop in the number of child abuse cases in the last 15 years, officials credit the arrest and prosecution of more sex offenders and they also say prevention programs have been key in bringing that number down.

For more information about spotting and preventing child abuse:

Kristin Carlson - WCAX News

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