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Wish Book 2018: Protecting special needs children from sexual assault

San Jose Mercury News - 12/23/2018

Dec. 23--Madison Turner, a high-school freshman who has Down syndrome, has always been friendly -- she'd even hug strangers she met in line at the grocery store.

But the 14-year-old's outgoing personality prompted her mother to worry: what if her daughter was unknowingly making herself a target for predators?

"Children with special needs are very vulnerable," said Madison's mother, 43-year-old Marcie Turner, of San Jose. "And that's why I feel like I really need to, not necessarily scare her, but make her more aware."

Over the summer, Turner signed her daughter up for a "Social Boundaries" class offered by San Jose-based nonprofit Parents Helping Parents, which teaches children with autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities and other special needs how to safely and appropriately interact with the people in their lives. The classes, which have been running consistently for nine years, have taught dozens of children who struggle with social cues.

The goal is to protect some of society's most vulnerable populations. People with intellectual disabilities are upwards of seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than people without disabilities, according to a January investigation by NPR. It's a problem rarely talked about, though it's one of the highest rates of sexual assault of any group in America, according to the investigation.

Donations through Wish Book will help Parents Helping Parents hold workshops to help educate children with intellectual disabilities about sexual assault and exploitation. Their goal is $20,000

"A lot of our kids are taught at a young age to hug everybody," said Trudy Grable, director of community and family services for Parents Helping Parents. "And especially individuals who are very happy, jolly and love people. They become big huggers, which puts them at risk."

About four years ago Minnie Matthews, 59, of San Jose, saw that risk become every parent and guardian's worst fear. Her granddaughter, who is now 18, is on the autism spectrum, has a developmental disability and has OCD, was raped while walking in her neighborhood. The rapist had convinced the teen he was her boyfriend, Matthews said.

"It's devastating. It's emotional. It's heartbreaking," Matthews said. "And we have to deal with it."

No one has been arrested for the rape.

For Angelique Betler, of San Jose, warning bells started going off when she noticed her 14-year-old daughter, Juoleanne, leaving the front door open for the mailman. Juoleanne, who is on the autism spectrum, thought the mailman was a friend, because the family saw him every day. He might want to come inside, she told her mother.

Worried about who might take advantage of her daughter's trusting nature, Betler recently signed her up for the Parents Helping Parents Social Boundaries class.

Juoleanne enjoyed the experience. It taught her "some people aren't safe, and some people are safe, and you need to get to know them before you can tell if they're safe or not," she said.

Now when the mailman comes to the house, Juoleanne just waves.

Parents Helping Parents, which offers a variety of classes, support groups and other resources for parents of children with special needs, uses a diagram of color-coded concentric circles to teach children how to talk to, how or whether to touch, and how much to trust different types of people. Parents, siblings and other close loved-ones, for example, are in the blue circle, which means it's safe to hug them and tell them anything. Teachers belong in the yellow circle -- meaning they get a hand-shake or high-five -- and people like the mailman, a relative stranger, are in the orange circle -- meaning they get a wave, but no touching.

The nonprofit offers two six-week classes each year for children ages 8 to 18, and asks for a $25 registration fee, which is waived if the family can't afford it. Parents Helping Parents gets $14,000 a year for the classes from the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Santa Clara County, and received an extra $14,000 to offer two additional classes at local schools next year. The nonprofit is seeking additional funding to expand the program to families it currently can't afford to serve.

"All of our programs cost a lot more than we get funding for," Grable said.

With the money raised through Wishbook, she hopes to offer more Social Boundaries classes, including to people with special needs who are over 18, and to people outside of San Jose.

Since attending the Social Boundaries class, Madison no longer hugs strangers in line at the grocery store. She gives them a high-five instead, which is a huge relief to her mother, Marcie Turner.

"It helped her so much," Turner said, "that she's actually telling me, 'Mom you probably shouldn't hug that person. They're not in your blue circle.'"


Social Boundaries Classes

To enroll in or find out more about Parents Helping Parents' Social Boundaries classes, or to learn about other services the nonprofit offers for parents of children with special needs, visit www.php.com, call (408) 727-5775 or email info@php.com. The next Social Boundaries class is scheduled for February.



The Wish Book is an annual series of The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.


Donations will help Parents Helping Parents hold Social Boundaries workshops to help educate children with intellectual disabilities about sexual assault and exploitation. Goal: $20,000


Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or mail in the coupon.


Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com.


(c)2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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