Program teaches Wake County kids how to report child abuse

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Child advocates say with a seemingly endless supply of those willing to take advantage of kids, the best way to thwart child abuse is to teach children at an early age how to recognize and report it.

To that end, Raleigh non-profit SAFEchild trains teachers and counselors to present a unique program called "Funny Tummy Feelings."

"When you experience emotions, pleasant or unpleasant, your body communicates that to you. And so that's the notion behind the name 'Funny Tummy Feelings.'" SAFEchild executive director Cristin DeRonja said.

She added that the idea is to help children identify that 'funny tummy feeling' and report it.

So, DeRonja said, children as young as first-graders are told to, "Listen to your funny tummy feelings and to do something, particularly when it's an unpleasant emotion."

On Tuesday, DeRonja was training several counselors from private and charter schools at SAFEchild's Raleigh offices.

The Funny Tummy Feelings program is already in place in all 117 of the elementary schools in the Wake County Public School System and the folks at SAFEchild are hoping to expand to other schools and school systems.

DeRonja said most of the children who complete the program simply file the information in their memory banks for future use.

But some have an immediate and visceral reaction.

"It can be a light bulb moment unfortunately for some kids who have already experienced abuse," DeRonja said. "And they are empowered to do something about it. They are appreciated and believed and celebrated for speaking up about what's happening to them, reassured that they are not the one to blame, they are not at fault, they are not responsible for the abuse that's happening to them."

A few years ago, police brought a child abuse victim to SAFEchild to be interviewed; a victim who had just gone through the Funny Tummy Feelings program.

"I said, 'Who is the first person you told about the abuse?' And the child said, 'To the Funny Tummy Feelings lady.' And it was receiving that presentation at school that day that gave that child the voice to speak up about what was happening to her," DeRonja said.

The Funny Tummy Feelings program tools are contained in box about the size of a sheet cake.

Inside are placards that have drawings of happy, angry, sad, excited, and confused faces.

The kit also has a bag filled with several painted tongue depressor sticks called "secret sticks."

The sticks teach children about secrets that are OK to keep and secrets that are not.

For example, youngsters are told that's it OK when an adult asks them to keep a gift for a sibling or friend's upcoming birthday a secret.

But when someone who touches you in your "bathing suit area" and then asks you not to tell your parents, it's not OK.

SAFEchild has revised the program through the years to fit today's high-tech world of computers and smart phones.

DeRonja used a hand puppet named "Trickster" included in the box to talk about children on the internet.

A colleague played the role of a child and DeRonja, demonstrating for the counselors she was training, started a discussion.

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"Will you come to the computer lab and talk to this friend, I met online?" DeRonja said in a puppet voice as she held the Trickster puppet next to her head.

The woman playing the role of a child responded, "Is he in the computer lab?"

Trickster replied, "Well, he's in the computer. I've been talking to him and we can talk back and forth."

It was a clear example of how other children or even an adult abuser can sometimes try to coerce a child to communicate with strangers online.

If you would like the Funny Tummy Feelings program presented at your child's school or to a group, go to this link to learn more and contact SAFEchild.

DeRonja said just like reading, writing, and arithmetic, emotional care needs to be taught to school children.

And she reminds us that it's up to adults to make sure children learn those lessons.

"We shouldn't sit and wait for a child to get hurt to help them," she said. "We should be helping children proactively on the front end every single day of their lives. That is our responsibility."
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