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Teddy Bears Help Officers Relate to Youngsters : Police: Stuffed animals reassure children who come into contact with law enforcement after accidents or abuse.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two Hawthorne brothers, ages 7 and 9, were so absorbed in a television show that they didn’t hear their mother tell them she was going to a neighbor’s house for a few minutes.

When the boys suddenly noticed that their mother was missing, they became frightened and called 911. Their mother returned soon after Hawthorne police officers arrived at the home. But the boys, fearing she was in trouble and would be taken to jail, began to cry.

To reassure the boys that nothing bad was going to happen and that they had done the right thing by calling, Officer David Gregor dug into a duffel bag in the trunk of his police car and pulled out two stuffed teddy bears.

“All of a sudden the tears went away and turned into smiles,” Gregor said. “It really calmed them down.”

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The teddy bears Gregor gave the boys are among 125 stuffed animals donated to the Hawthorne Police Department last week by Project Cuddle, a 2-year-old program operated by an Irvine-based charity for child abuse prevention called Stop the Pain. Although teddy bears have been distributed in Hawthorne through other programs for three years, this donation was the first from Project Cuddle.

Thanks to the program, each Hawthorne patrol car is equipped with a bag of stuffed animals for children who come into contact with police officers.

In the two years since it was founded, the nonprofit corporation has donated more than 7,000 stuffed animals to 81 law enforcement agencies nationwide. Police and sheriff’s agencies in the South Bay that give away stuffed animals include those in Carson, Gardena, Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes Estates.

In many cases, the children who receive the animals are victims of crime or have been taken into protective custody because of abuse or neglect. But in some instances, the children have survived fires or have seen their parents injured or killed in car accidents.

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Debbe Magnusen, Stop the Pain’s executive director and founder of Project Cuddle, said she developed the teddy bear giveaway after learning that police officers are the first point of contact for nearly 85% of the children who are placed into protective services.

By giving the youngsters a stuffed animal, police officers are reminding the children that “they are not the bad guy” while at the same time helping the officers to feel more comfortable, said Magnusen, a Costa Mesa resident who has cared for 21 foster children in the last seven years.

“I think long-range, the goal is to build the self-worth of each child so that when they grow up, they don’t end up becoming criminals and we the victims,” Magnusen said.

Gregor expressed skepticism that the teddy bears would have any effect on future crime rates. But he said that “the teddy bears are a nice way to get to know the kids. I think it will help them know that we are there to help them and that if they ever need us--whether at 2 years old or 10 years old--that we’re here for them.”

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