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This Artful Mouse Helps Navigate Potential Web Woes for Kids

May 4, 2011 By:
Susan Perloff, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Jake is 8, playing Nintendo and Game Boy on computer consoles. As entertainments move online, Jake follows.

One day while gaming, he enters a chat room and encounters his cousin Rebecca (not her real name). They chat.

Enter Mom, astonished to see her son chatting in the dining room. "Who ya talkin' to?" "Cousin Rebecca," comes the reply. "How do you know it's your Rebecca?" "It is," says Jake, who by now knows everything.

What he does not know, of course, is the depth of danger lurking on the web. What he doesn't realize is that his mother, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, is about to pair her maternal instincts and her real-world savvy.

"Jake found his cousin's first name on the screen and assumed it was his cousin. 'Of course it's her,' he said."

Her name is on the screen, so it must be her. That's logic to an 8-year-old.

Says Ferman: "This started a bigger conversation: How are we introducing our younger children to the Internet? You wouldn't invite a stranger into your home, but with the Internet, you're bringing the world -- strange people and strange ideas -- into your home." Unfiltered.

Ferman went looking for resources to teach Jake and other children about the potential risks of Internet surfing. Coming up cold, she says, "I talked to my detectives to see if anything was available. They couldn't find anything valuable either."

Young people had a high level of comfort on the Internet. They trusted what they read. But criminal cases had taught Ferman that adults trolling the Internet encountered "horrible situations. And we were giving our kids access to all of it."

The D.A.'s office was already presenting Internet-safety programs in schools, primarily for students ages 14 to 18. Ferman, who has worked as a district attorney since graduating from Widener University School of Law, was looking for the electronic equivalent of not getting into cars with strangers.

Even though her day job often concerns worst-case scenarios, that was not her goal. She wanted to reach young, pre-computer kids, if such an age exists. She remembered the Berenstain Bears, fictional animals who typically face preschool challenges.

She decided to write a book. But how?

She confided in Tim Cifelli, who did pro bono work for Mission Kids, a child-advocacy center in Montgomery County that Ferman co-founded. Cifelli suggested that the book become a public-awareness and fundraising campaign for Mission Kids. From his advertising agency, Diccicco Battista Communications, he plucked the creativity of Fran Lamb. She crafted the concept of Wesley Whiskers, surfer dude.

And The Mouse Who Went Surfing Alone was born.

Illustrator Stephen Herko won the gig because his mouse reminded Ferman of Jake.

Now for Mission Kids, which is benefiting from book sales.

"It's one-stop shopping for responses to child abuse," says Ferman. "When a child is hurt and has to tell what happened, they come to our center and are interviewed by trained professionals. Once. Mission Kids minimizes trauma to children."

The center also provides referrals and more -- and raises awareness and prevention of child abuse. "This book dovetails nicely into that," she says.

Because Ferman's maiden name is Vetri, people often assume she's not Jewish. "I am," she says. When her father, from South Philadelphia by way of Sicily, married her mother, from Poland, he converted to Judaism.

One of Ferman's three children attends Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, and the family is active with Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

The paperback book contains stickers, which appeal to children as young as 2. But no small kid can understand the metaphor of surfing. "Explaining is the parent's job," says Ferman. "Each sea predator -- Jake chose them -- is meant to impersonate a real danger."

Parents should read with their kids and also initiate conversations about computers, she adds.

The district attorney and her now-teenaged children wrote the poetry, involving simple rhyme schemes. It doesn't scan like Shakespeare -- or even Ogden Nash -- but it gets the precarious point across.

The best part for Ferman is "the psychic benefit of doing something like this with your kids. So much of what they know about my work is removed from them. This was different, and they were part of it."

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