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Published: Sunday, 6/3/2007

Fuzzy friends calm frightened children

BY ERIKA RAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tommy Moose may only be a stuffed toy, but he's important enough to ride in the front seat of the cruiser with Ottawa County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Hickman on his patrols. Tommy Moose may only be a stuffed toy, but he's important enough to ride in the front seat of the cruiser with Ottawa County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Hickman on his patrols.
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During a routine traffic stop last summer, Tiffin police were forced to arrest a woman and her boyfriend because drugs were found in their vehicle.

Officers handcuffed the pair and put them in the back of police cruisers. Then they turned their attention to the woman's 3-year-old son, who was sobbing and reaching out for his mother, said Tiffin police Capt. Frank Iannantuono, who assisted at the scene.

Officers allowed the woman to call her mother to come pick up her child, but she was in Bloomville, Ohio, and needed to travel about 12 miles to Tiffin - where the traffic stop occurred - to pick up her grandson.

That meant a long wait for the confused and terrified child, the captain said.

To help take the child's mind off the situation, Captain Iannantuono said he called Tiffin police Chief David LaGrange and asked him to grab a stuffed animal out of the department's stash and bring it to him. So the chief plucked out a stuffed lion, drove a few blocks to the scene, and put it in the child's arms.

"I'll tell you what - what a difference that made. It was like night and day for that kid," the captain said. "He stopped crying and got a bit smile on his face. That made a big difference for him."

Arming themselves with cuddly stuffed animals is not a new concept for law enforcement officers and rescue personnel. In fact, virtually all of the more than two dozen agencies polled by The Blade throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan have been carrying around fuzzy creatures in their vehicles for years.

If animals are not stowed in vehicles, they're at the departments for when they're needed. Law enforcement personnel said they're most often used at the scene of a traffic crash, where a child might not necessarily be injured but a parent or relative may be.

"They do seem to help the best at traffic crashes to reassure them and explain to them that mom and dad are being taken care of by the paramedics and here's a friend that you need to take care of," Erie County sheriff's Capt. Paul Sigsworth said. "It relates to them that way."

The stuffed animals are often used at fires, domestic violence cases, and any other event in which a child has been traumatized.

"When the child sees a fuzzy, little animal, it's something that can kinda comfort them in their time of need," Wood County sheriff's Chief Deputy Eric Reynolds said. "Usually their eyes and face light up, they get a smile on their face, and they are excited to receive it."

Some Toledo police officers will pick up a bear on their way to a hospital when they know children will be involved in an investigation, and others will make sure children have one if they're in court and need to testify, northwest district station Capt. Jeff Hennessy said.

However, most agencies don't have concrete funding sources or programs. Instead, they rely on donations from residents, churches, schools, clubs, or organizations.

For example, Bowling Green police get most of their donations from sororities at the nearby Bowling Green State University, and Sandusky police will sometimes get the stuffed animals traditionally used as prizes at Cedar Point amusement park.

But no agency in Ottawa County will need to worry about where its supply is coming from, thanks to a new program sponsored by the Port Clinton Legion and the Women of the Moose.

The groups recently kicked off a fund-raiser in an effort to ensure that every police cruiser, EMS squad, and support vehicle will never run out of a supply of Tommy Moose stuffed animals for the next year. They plan to supply three stuffed moose for every vehicle.

The brown moose wearing a red sweater sporting the words "Tommy Moose" ride up front in the passenger seat of the sheriff's department cruiser that Ottawa County sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Hickman drives. "I can't put those guys in the trunk," he said. "They're too cute, and they'd get dirty back there."

To raise the about $2,000 to buy the several hundred moose they gave out, the Women of the Moose saved the proceeds from spaghetti dinners they sponsored over the past few years, said Marie Whipple, senior regent of the group. They're hoping to replenish the supply bought through Moose International when agencies run out, she said.

"Whenever there's an auto accident or an accident of some kind, children get upset," she said. "If they get something to keep that's soft and cuddly, it will help calm them down, and that's why we got into this."

So Ottawa County has moose, but most of the other agencies have teddy bears - some of which are donated by Good Bears of the World, a Toledo-based nonprofit organization.

"It gives a child a sense of security," said Terrie Stong, executive director for Good Bears of the World. "If a child is traumatized and crying, they're not able to talk. But if you offer them a bear, children are very easily distracted and it calms them down."

Agencies that get more animals than they can store or handle - some only give out between six and 12 per year - have come up with some creative ideas to use them to comfort children. Tiffin police donated their excess stuffed animals to the fire department last Christmas so firefighters could have more to pass out to less-fortunate children.

Though she was not aware of any research documenting the effectiveness of stuffed animals helping children cope with stressful situations, child psychologist Michele Knox also said it couldn't hurt."I think the way that it could help would be to let the child know that they are caring adults out there at a time when perhaps they are feeling very vulnerable," said the assistant professor at the University of Toledo. "I think it's a nice gesture."

Contact Erika Ray at:

eray@theblade.com

or 419-724-6088.



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