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Colo. Town Copes With Sex Assault

June 9, 2002

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ERIE, Colo. (AP) _ Neighbors greet neighbors with a friendly wave. Road signs read, ``Please slow down. We love our children,″ and playgrounds abound.

Yet something troublesome has bubbled to the surface of one close-knit neighborhood and left parents fearing for their children’s safety. Designed to be family friendly, the area has been coping with 11 allegations since March of children sexually assaulting other children.

Six boys, ages 12 to 15, have been arrested in the alleged attacks on victims ranging from 8 to 15 years old, though charges have not been filed in some cases and others remain under investigation. Some of the reports involve boys assaulting boys and some involve boys assaulting girls, authorities said.

Parents have attended community meetings about the crimes, and some have sought the help of therapists for their children. Parents say they don’t know who to trust since the suspects’ identities have been withheld.

``It’s horrible what’s happening,″ mother Pam Lane said. ``We’re ‘hello’ neighbors. We sit on the porch and there’s not a person that goes by that we don’t wave to.″

Police aren’t sure why there have been so many assault reports. Some speculate it could be related to an increased awareness of the crime around the nation, or sexual references on television and in movies.

``It’s been a steady stream,″ police Lt. David Brown said. ``They just keep coming. We close one case and open another.″

Nationwide, assailants are older juveniles in more than 50 percent of sexual assault cases involving boys and up to 30 percent involving girls, said Gail Ryan of the Kempe Center, a Denver-based child abuse prevention and treatment organization.

Statistics indicate child-on-child sexual abuse has not increased in the past 20 years, but awareness of it has. Ryan said there was a similar cluster of assaults reported in a rural Pennsylvania town more than eight years ago.

``In cases like what’s going on in Erie, I think the community has to be very aware of how this is not something that has happened to just a few children,″ she said. ``It’s really something that has happened to the whole community.″

Some experts agree that children learn the behavior from their environment.

``Chances are they’ve seen it on TV or on the Internet or they watch their parents do it or it’s been done to them,″ said Jae Marciano of the San Diego-based Family Violence and Sexual Assault Institute.

Marciano acknowledged that sexual experimentation is common among children in the age range of those alleging assault, though she had no details about the Erie cases.

Bolstered by the high-tech boom in nearby Boulder and Denver, this former coal mining town’s population has exploded in the last decade, more than tripling from 1,258 residents to 9,400 residents. Just a year ago, newcomers were put on a six-month waiting list to get a house. Subdivisions have sprung up amid fields of alfalfa, hay and corn.

The neighborhood where the assaults occurred is typical suburbia, with two-story, cookie-cutter wooden homes painted in pastels. Young trees are anchored by ropes in green lawns.

The assaults came to light when the mother of an 8-year-old boy reportedly walked in on her naked son and his 15-year-old friend, a boy, police said. They were supposed to be playing video games, police said.

The 15-year-old pleaded guilty to sexual assault and is scheduled to be sentenced in July. Five other boys have been charged in other cases.

At town meetings, debates had centered on growth and water until authorities recently organized two forums about the sexual assaults and gave parents tips on how to ask their children if they’ve been victims.

Kerie Stevens talked to her four children about good touch and bad touch. She also barred them from playing behind closed doors.

``It’s all minors and none of us know who the perpetrators are. We want to be cautious but we don’t know who we need to keep the kids away from,″ Stevens said.

Gina Sanchez took her four boys, ages 1 to 8, to a therapist.

``I don’t know that it’s something they could talk about even when they’re told it’s OK,″ she said. ``It’s a very hard thing for kids to talk about.″

But she and other parents said children seem to feel more comfortable with reporting problems to their parents.

``This happens to kids all over the country, in every neighborhood. It’s not our water,″ Sanchez said.

___

On the Net:

The National Center for Juvenile Justice: http://www.ncjrs.org

Colorado Coalition of Sexual Assault: http://www.ccasa.org

Kempe Center: http://www.kempecenter.org

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