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Published: Tuesday, 11/5/2002

Risks lurk closer than backyard

It's a fine line for parents, teaching the kids “stranger danger” without conveying that the world is a bad place.

“I talked to her about what to do many times,” one mother told me, speaking of her 6-year-old child.

“I told her adults don't need help from children, and I told her to stay away from the fence, even if it's someone we know, just stay away unless I'm out there. And later she told me, `Mommy, you never told me they could come over the fence and get me!'”

Which is what happened last spring in the backyard of the suburban Maumee home where this woman lives with her husband, first-grade daughter, and 2-year-old girl.

“He just attacked. He didn't even try to coax her away. I never thought to teach her about that,” the mother said.

Yesterday in a downtown courtroom, the 20-year-old man who pleaded guilty to kidnapping this 6-year-old girl stood before a judge and got the maximum sentence.

Yesterday in Maumee, the bruises were no longer in evidence on the child's body, but damage remained.

Maybe you remember reading about what happened in this family's bucolic, picket-fenced backyard last May. It's the kind of story that rivets, especially if you have kids.

The two children were in the backyard. Their mom went inside for a moment, but soon heard a shriek. “It was like I heard this voice in my head that said, `You need to get out there!' My 2-year-old came to the back door, and I put her in the house and told her to stay there.”

From the back door, she could see a man stuffing her older daughter into a car, and before she knew it, the mother was halfway over that picket fence. “I couldn't let her die that way. When it's your child, you can't let them go through something like that.”

He started toward her, which gave the little girl the chance to run back to her mother.

“You know, they tell you in self-defense classes to trust your instincts. He was saying he was sorry, but his body language was telling me he wasn't done. I had [her daughter] in one hand, and was swinging at him with my other. I'm glad my neighbors came out.”

Somewhere in the criminal-justice world, the file on this case was marked “closed” yesterday. But so many tomorrows for this Maumee family are still in question.

Neither child plays much in the backyard. The 6-year-old has recurring nightmares of someone sneaking into her room at night. Recently in a store, the 2-year-old ordered a stranger not to stand so close. At a restaurant, the 6-year-old was afraid of the many teen boys there, none much younger than her attacker. Neither girl lets the mother out of her sight.

“It's changed our neighborhood. The parents come out and watch the kids ride bikes to a friend's house now.”

The mother is still trying to relocate “normal,” trying to keep a scary world at bay, in age-appropriate ways. She tells the older one to remember that Jesus is always with her. She tells the toddler all is well.

“I just say, `Mommy keeps you safe. The bad man is locked up in jail. Bad man all gone now.'”



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