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Police Switch To Handing Out Books To Children

Published On: Oct 12 2009 09:39:47 AM CDT   Updated On: Oct 12 2009 09:45:08 AM CDT
MIDDLETON, Wis. -

As police respond to traumatic events, sometimes children can be found sitting to the side of the emergency, feeling lonely and scared. For years, officers have comforted them with stuffed animals, but that's now changing.

Laws typically are meant to protect people and to make sure they're safe. The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act does that too, but it has law enforcement officers rethinking handing out stuffed animals because of the chemicals they might contain.

Middleton police Sgt. Don Mueller said that in the past, handing out the stuffed animals or other toys could help children feel a little better.

"If you can get them to open it up and start reading, it can take their mind off whatever the problem is we're passing them out for in the first place," Mueller said.

In the back of Mueller's car is a bag of books that can move the mind from the unimaginable to a world of pure imagination.

"(The children could be) witnessing their parents in a domestic abuse situation to they're hurt on an EMS call, or they could be in a traffic accident," he said.

Mueller said that he used to hand out Teddy bears or other stuffed toys to children. Now, Middleton police are using the books to make sure they're in compliance with new federal regulations.

"One of the reasons for that is we get older toys that come in and they're perfectly fine to give out, but we don't know if they were made under the new requirements," he said.

The book backpacks come for free from the With Wings and a Halo Reach a Child program, which is located inside a Waunakee warehouse. Paul Gilbertson said that he co-founded the program months ago and books are already in the back of thousands of squad cars in Waunakee and in communities in 12 states.

"It's through e-mails we get from officers and first-responders that lighten up my life," Gilbertson said.

Waunakee police Sgt. Roger Bartels said that the bags have proven helpful.

"It's a good tool to have in our trunk and our patrol officers are able to use them when they come across all types of situations like that," Bartels said.

"Especially in a situation where a parent might be being arrested by us, if they can later see that we're not the boogeyman, that we actually are trying to do the right thing and one of the things that can do that is they can see we gave them a book," Mueller said.

The new federal law is retroactive so the departments like Middleton are no longer using any stuffed animals as they can be held liable.

As for Reach a Child effort, the difference they're making is real. Officials said that officers recently handed out the books after an incident in Madison's Allied Drive neighborhood and the organizers said that they had other area children tracking them down and ask for books to read since the Book Mobile doesn't serve the street and there isn't a library nearby.

The bags given to the officers contain a variety of books for different ages.

The bags are expected to be in all squad cars in Chicago soon, officials said.

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