Anyone who might think that what happened to Jessica Marie Lunsford in Florida couldn't happen in Southeast Missouri should recall Samuel Joseph Farrow.
Farrow abducted a 4-year-old girl from her Scott City bedroom in November 2000, sexually abused her at his home and then dumped her in the driveway of a house in rural Cape Girardeau County.
The little girl Farrow assaulted was eventually returned to her parents.
Jessica Lunsford was murdered. John Evander Couey, 46, is charged with the crime.
Parents need to know who their neighbors are and question any unusual behavior, say both Tammy Gwaltney, director of the Southeast Missouri Network Against Sexual Violence, and Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department detective Karen Buchheit. Parents should talk to their children about strangers frequently as they mature.
They shouldn't worry about scaring their children, Gwaltney said. Children view that kind of caution from their parents as caring and welcome it.
"It's not being paranoid," Gwaltney said. "It's knowing the people who have access to your kids. It's not the stranger lurking in the bushes. It's somebody who knows and has access to your child."
A potential attacker could be someone the parents don't know personally, but someone who lives nearby who may know what time children come home from school and if they're coming home to an empty house. That person may have talked with the child casually in the neighborhood, blurring the lines between stranger and acquaintance.
One major step parents can take, Gwaltney and Buchheit said, is to report any person who seems suspicious. Police will investigate without that person knowing he is being investigated. If the parents' fears are right, then police can take appropriate action.
Both suggest that parents check the sex offenders list on either the sheriff's Web site or that of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. If there's someone living in the neighborhood who is a registered sex offender, "then talk to your kids," Buchheit said. "Tell them that this is not a nice person, that they are not to go into his house or into his yard, and he is not to come into your house or your yard."
Buchheit said parents should get to know their children's friends' parents -- and not just by sight, either. Get to know who they are, what their beliefs are, if there may be drugs or weapons in the house.
"There are all kinds of safety issues," Buchheit said. "Anybody who takes a real big interest in your kids and doesn't have kids of their own, that should be a red flag."
Buchheit cautions that parents should make it a point to get to know anyone -- Scout leaders, Sunday school teachers -- who take an interest in someone else's children outside of those activities. It may well be that they just like children and like to work with them, but some pedophiles put themselves in such positions so they can be around children.
"Parents should not assume that because somebody is in a leadership position that person is harmless," Gwaltney said. "I'm not saying people should think everybody is a child abuse perpetrator. I'm saying it's OK to be cautious. Talk to your neighbors. What do you know about them?"
"Be nosy, ask questions," Gwaltney added. "Find out the person's background if you're concerned about someone being an offender."
Buchheit added that parents should be especially concerned about adults who have toys in their own home -- computer games, Xboxes, things that would entice children -- and a lot of children coming into their home or yard. Those are the people who further blur the distinction between stranger and acquaintance.
"Then he's no longer a stranger," Buchheit said. "He's the nice man next door who talked to them because they're lonely. With children it's a fuzzy area. If they recognize his face and he acts like he knows the child, then they don't think he's a stranger."
It's also important, say Gwaltey and Buchheit, that children feel confident about coming to their parents if they have any questions or concerns.
"They need to know it's all right to tell," Gwaltney said. "They need to know they can tell mom and dad, or a teacher, a police officer who works at school. Then get them to name specific people they would tell so you know they understand."
Buchheit also advises that parents have plans in place for situations that could happen and make sure children are familiar with them. They need to know exactly what a stranger is and who they should consider a stranger.
"We don't want them to be fearful of everybody but we don't want them to trust everybody," Buchheit said. "We want to make sure they feel comfortable and safe, and know what to do."
Gwaltney said that NASV offers free programs to neighborhood watch groups, church groups, or other community organizations with information on how to teach children to protect themselves.
"All that's needed is an invitation to make it happen," she said.
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