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Keeping Children Safe from Predators

Parents advised to talk with children, know where they are playing during summer vacation.

With the recent string of exposure incidents involving young children in southeastern Fairfax County, parents are being urged to take extra precautions while their children are enjoying summer vacation.

However, in one instance, a young girl’s martial arts teacher exposed himself to her, showing that even those adults children are taught to trust can be dangerous.

“The thing is, these incidents do not all involve the same person,” said Officer Richard Henry, a public information officer with Fairfax County. “We’re not looking for just one guy in one area.”

If a child has had any kind of inappropriate contact with an adult, parents are urged to believe their child and report the incident to the police, Henry said.

After talking with the police, a child or the family will be referred to the Fairfax County Police Department’s Victim Services office.

“Our role is to provide psychological, financial and physical assistance to victims in need,” said Carrollann Ellis, director of the office. “We spend time with the children, either with their families or alone, and talk to them in a quiet location where they feel comfortable. We want to talk about what happened so [the child] knows it isn’t their fault.”

Working in conjunction with Victims Services is the Community Services Board, which provides additional counseling and support for families and victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

IT IS ESSENTIAL for parents to stay calm if their child has had some kind of inappropriate contact with an adult, said Kathleen Kelmelis, domestic abuse and sexual assault program manager for the Community Services Board.

“First and foremost, they need to believe their child,” she said. “Secondly, it’s important for the parent not to go into panic mode. They need to be calm and supportive.”

Parents should obtain “as much information about the incident as possible” from their child before calling the police, and then discuss what may happen next so the child “feels they’re a part of the process and they’re helping to make things better,” Kelmelis said.

If a parent stays calm, it may prevent the child from developing a long-term fear of going outside alone or returning to the area of the exposure.

“I’m not saying to downplay the incident, but don’t make it a focus of daily life either,” she said.

Both the Community Services Board and the Victims Services department work together to support the victims of sexual assault or exposures.

“We are part of the mental health system in Fairfax County. Victims Services work with victims who have already reported the incident to the police. They will refer people to us for counseling services and we refer people to them if they need someone to accompany them to court,” Kelmelis said.

Unfortunately, parents need to know that “short of putting your kid in a bubble, there’s not much parents can do” to keep their child from ever being involved in an exposure incident, Kelmelis said.

“Parents need to make connections to the adults in their child’s life,” she said.

There are tools available to parents, however, that can give them some peace of mind.

“The sex offender registry is a good way to know who lives in your neighborhood,” Kelmelis said. “It can raise awareness about a certain town and knowledge helps us to know who is living around our children. It’s not a solution to the problem, but it is one way to have more control.”

LAST WEEK, State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-37) unveiled an updated sex offender registry Web site, which allows users to search for a list of all sexual offenders in an area, by name, Zip code or town name, said legislative aide Eve Barner.

“Once an individual has served their time, they can’t be punished anymore,” Barner said. “This is a way that parents, teachers, day-care centers or other community groups can be notified of possible dangers in their neighborhood.”

Schools, day-care centers and group homes are eligible to sign up to have e-mail notification when a registered sex offender moves within a certain distance of the building, Barner said, but that services is not made available to private homeowners yet.

Inclusion on the list is mandatory for certain offenses or if a judge or jury includes it as part of a person’s sentencing, Barner said. If an offender moves from one state to another, however, the possibility exists that the offender may not immediately register with the new location.

"The main idea is allowing the public to be more informed," she said of the site. "The world is a scary place."

Fairfax County Police have scheduled a workshop to educate parents and children about sexual predators on Thursday, July 6, from 7-8 p.m., at Hayfield Elementary School, 7633 Telegraph Road in Alexandria. Scheduled for the evening are discussions about parental response to their child's concerns, investigative techniques used in sexual predator cases, information about the sexual offender registry and safety training for children. The Public Information Office of the Fairfax County Police has more information at 703-246-2253.