MOUNT VERNON — The events of the past week involving the kidnapping and rescue of 13-year-old Sarah Maynard of Howard, and the continuing search for her brother, Kody Maynard, 11, mother, Tina Herrmann, 32, and family friend, Stephanie Sprang, 41, have left the Knox County community stunned. Mental health experts advise the circumstances have been stressing and traumatizing for the entire community, especially Knox County’s children.
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“It’s been stressful for the entire community,” said Dr. Rick Stutzman, a state licensed psychologist who works in the Mount Vernon City Schools.
“It evokes the No. 1 fear for both children and parents, the loss of a child or the loss of a parent,” Stutzman explained.
Many parents have been asked difficult questions by their children about the events and investigation, leaving adults grappling with the best way to provide answers and address their concerns without further traumatizing them.
“It’s definitely OK to talk about it in a factual and accurate way,” said Dr. Christopher Fiumera, Ph.D., a Mount Vernon psychologist who serves children in his practice. “Answer the questions accurately, without speculation. Speculation can exacerbate anxiety.”
Fiumera said to answer children’s questions as accurately as possible. He added, if a parent doesn’t know the answer to the question, it’s a good idea to say so.
Stutzman agreed. “We need to be honest with kids and say we don’t always know,” he explained.
Encouraging children to ask questions is another good way to invoke a healthy dialogue.
“By encouraging frank and accurate questions, we are reassuring them that the questions they have are normal and OK,” he said.
Both psychologists said the need for parents to reassure their children that they are safe is paramount while such a tragedy is constantly on the news, discussed in every school hallway and even on the playground.
Fiumera advised parents and other adults to talk honestly with children about the measures already in place to keep them safe.
“There are things we do as a family, or as a school group that keep you safe,” he used as an example. “Talk about those things in a very reassuring way.”
“A child’s need right now is to feel safe, feel secure and be reassured,” Stutzman offered. “And what a parent should be saying is ‘That’s my job as a parent; to take care of you. I will take care of you.”
Reassuring children about the rarity of such a crime happening locally is also a good idea, according to both Fiumera and Stutzman.
However the rarity of such crimes, is why many parents are feeling challenged by their children’s questions, said Fiumera.
“It’s a unique situation, that our day-to-day living skills have not schooled us in because we don’t deal with it,” he explained.
“Don’t avoid the subject,” said Fiumera. “That’s the worst thing to do.”
Stutzman advised parents against making children more anxious by projecting any anxiety the parents may be feeling onto their children.
He also said answering the question ‘why did this happen,’ is impossible, when adults are unable to grasp how such crimes could be committed, especially against children.
Both specialists said some children are even more vulnerable to trauma in such a crisis.
“We may not be touched by it in the exact same way,” Fiumera explained. “Children may connect to it with other grief, loss, pain, or fear that they’ve experienced.”
“It might touch a child who has had a history of abuse,” he added.
Fiumera said because there is concern the other three people may not be alive, children who have experienced a recent loss may also be more deeply affected.
“Children who are experiencing bereavement or grief may connect to that,” he said. “Children connect with that area that’s personal to them.”
In the East Knox School District where Sarah and Kody Maynard both attended school until a week ago, Superintendent Matthew Caputo said the district has put the support system into place for children to have a safe place for their anxiety, worry and grief.
“We have put in place a variety of things for kids if they need someone to talk to,” Caputo said Tuesday.
He said besides school guidance counselors and social workers, there were familiar community members such as local youth pastors also available for students and staff who need to talk.
The Ohio Crisis Response Team is now also working with the East Knox schools, according to Caputo, at the district’s request.
“They specialize in situations like this,” he explained. “They’ve been involved with crises across the state and nationally.”
He said some of the crisis response team members worked with 9/11 survivors, as well as survivors of school tragedies.
Caputo said in order to ensure teachers and staff are able to continue caring for and supporting students, it is critical that those staff members be offered counseling and support if they need it.
Caputo explained that his tightly knit district has had a hard time over the past week dealing with the trauma of what’s happened to the four victims in the case.
Teachers and students at the schools attended by the Maynard children are getting close attention from concerned, supportive adults according to the superintendent.
“It’s impacted two particular classrooms more, but it’s affected the entire district,” he said.