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Community Copes With Fear, Anger

July 18, 2002|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doors were locked. Not a single kid splashed in the pool. And the lush, green courtyards of the Smoketree condominium complex--usually buzzing with children--were empty Wednesday morning.

Until a few days ago, parents paid no mind as their children ran down the sidewalks and up the alleys with friends in this quiet enclave of about 100 condominiums in Stanton.

Then 5-year-old Samantha Runnion was dragged screaming into a car, killed and left by the road in the Cleveland National Forest, sending this small community into shock.

Parents in Smoketree are struggling to find ways to cope. They agonize over choosing the right words to share with their children and wonder whether they can ever let them out of sight again.

It's a dilemma facing many parents in Southern California and beyond.

Experts say parents must tread a careful line between scaring their children and leaving them unprepared for danger. Tell children not to talk to strangers and what to do if approached, counselors advise, but don't give them the sense the world is an unsafe place.

"Children will pick up on fears," said Ginger Wilson, a psychologist with the American Red Cross of Orange County. "You've got to be careful not to spook them."

She advises adults to talk out their fears with friends, counselors or spiritual leaders. Adults should reassure their children about how they are safe with family, friends and teachers, Wilson said, and remind them who they can trust if they ever feel in danger.

Nowhere are parents more bedeviled by these questions than at the Stanton condominium complex where Samantha lived.

Lydia Petrey, 44, who was never before uncomfortable about allowing her 7-year-old son to play in front of her condo said one of her biggest concerns is that she doesn't know many of her neighbors, which makes it hard to keep tabs on activity in the complex--who belongs there and who doesn't. She hopes to change that.

"We need to get together more and take some responsibility for keeping our eyes open and looking out for each other," she said.

Even some Red Cross workers who live nowhere near Smoketree were too traumatized by Samantha's killing to come and help with counseling on Wednesday, Wilson said. She called the slaying the hardest thing she has had to deal with personally or professionally since counseling the families of victims of the World Trade Center attacks as they identified body parts.

"These kinds of events change your perceptions forever," she said. "You think, 'My home isn't safe; the courtyard isn't safe. What if he comes back? What if he is here right now and we don't know it?' "

There is already talk of installing an electronic gate to wall off the condo complex. Parents don't let their children outside alone, and residents have stopped waving hello to people they don't know.

"I'm not only distrustful of people I don't know--now, it's even some people I know," said Monica Klingporn as she and her three children brought flowers to a memorial set up for Samantha.

"Most people are still in shock," said Sandy Hill, a counselor with Trauma Intervention Programs of Mission Viejo. She advised parents to prepare for unpredictable reactions from their children as they talk about what is going on. "Kids don't know how to express what they are feeling and what their fears are," she said. "Children are going to need to talk about whatever they need to talk about."

Hill and other volunteers carry teddy bears around Smoketree to give to children as part of counseling. They walk by signs that say "Samantha" in green and blue letters posted on shade trees in the courtyards. One sign has notes scribbled on it from other children. "I miss you," one note says.

Healing is just beginning, experts say. It will be a long process, and the wounds will be reopened by media updates on the hunt for a suspect and any trial, among other triggers. The vulnerability, depression and outrage may linger for years.

"People need to channel their fear into enhanced awareness of themselves, their families and their neighborhood," said Wilson of the Red Cross.

Residents are trying to do that.

"I've gone from nervousness and fear to anger," said neighbor Patrick Douglass. "But ultimately, this will bring us closer together."

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