Pedophiles, Witches & Kids

Sometimes, when I try to explain how frenzied we have become about the real but extremely rare crime of childhood abduction, I compare our era to that of 1692 Salem. There was no way — back then, back there — to convince the average person: Don’t you see you’re being swept up on a wave of mass hysteria? History will judge you as totally mad! (Though eventually, I suppose, that’ll be great for tourism.)

Folks in and around Salem were convinced that witches were everywhere casting spells. In the end, 150 people were tried as witches and 19 hanged, all for — we can see with the perspective of time — no reason.

Now, I’m not saying that there are absolutely no evil folks in the world today who wish harm upon children. But to imagine them everywhere, ever poised to snatch children, is to see the world through Salem eyes. Eyes blinded by hysteria. And yet look what is happening in England.

“One quarter of the adult population will require criminal records checks under the new child protection system coming into force next year, according to a report criticising the scheme,” wrote The Times, a British newspaper.

That’s right: ONE-FOURTH OF ALL ADULTS IN ENGLAND will be forced to undergo background checks to see whether they ever have been convicted of crimes related to pedophilia. The basic assumption being: Anyone who has any contact with children should be considered a pedophile until proven otherwise.

And it’s starting to happen here, too. I’ve heard from parents in a handful of states who say their local public schools are requiring the same thing.

One Texas mom wasn’t allowed into her daughter’s kindergarten Christmas party because her background check hadn’t cleared yet. (Eventually, the teacher relented, but the mom had to stand at the very back of the classroom and could not interact with any child except her own.)

You can imagine that this type of law makes adults less eager to volunteer for schools, Scouts or any activity with kids involved, because they have to undergo (and often pay for) security checks first. But what’s worse is that in this suspicious climate, adults grow wary of any involvement with kids. Frank Furedi, author of “Paranoid Parenting,” cites the story of a 2-year-old who wandered away from her nursery. A man driving by noticed her on the street, but (as he later testified at an inquest) he didn’t stop to help for fear he’d be accused of trying to abduct her.

She ended up at a pond. And drowned.

When we get to the point in society at which basic adult concern for children could well be mistaken for evil — and tried and found guilty — we’re back in Salem, 1692. The next “witch” could be you, comforting the kid who fell off her swing or volunteering for the school dance without a background check. Or, of course, letting your children go “free-range” and being accused of depraved indifference to all the black magic swirling around them. — Lenore

62 Responses

  1. I agree completely, however I don’t think we’ve ever really left 1692, really. There’s always been some frenzied scare we’ve been chasing as a culture. In the 80s it was pederast cults in daycares and child porn in family photos (Walmart as long-arm of the law). Our nature seems to be toward fear and protection probably because it has kept us from being eaten by animals.

    I know things are different but I can’t really put my finger on a cause … is it that we are more afraid or is it that we are more comfortable? Odd disparity, I know, but the technology that makes us safer also has given us more free time to worry.

  2. title should probably be “witches.” Or maybe “Salem” so as not to piss off the wiccans 😀

  3. It’s come to my attention that a parent can also become a modern day witch, if that parent doesn’t immediately become extremely worried because his or her kid is a little bit shy, or does any of the odd things that kids do. It seems like many parents and far too many professionals want to see all kids fit into a one-size-fits-all behavior pattern from the very start.

    Any parent who resists this risks being ostracized from friends and family, or, worse, told they are a witch, i.e. a bad parent.

  4. @toyfoto, I agree, it’s always been *something* though it seems to be worse now for some reason. Maybe because we are older and actually see it now?

    I think part of the problem is that if a lawmaker were to try to point out the absurdity of some of these laws they’d be accused of being ‘soft’ on child crimes and ‘anti-family’.

    And by the way, Lenore, there’s a misspelling in the title, I assume that should be ‘Witches’ not ‘Withes’.

  5. I read this site because as my daughter gets older I plan to give her quite a bit of responsibility and autonomy, and I thought I agreed with the philosophy.

    However, one of the major reasons I am “free-range” is that I think that people get their dangers in all the wrong order. The truth of the matter is that while stranger abduction and stranger assault is extremely rare, assault and molestation by known adults, e.g. Scout leaders, is not rare at all. I would let an 8 year-old ride her bike to school alone (I think, she’s still a toddler now so hard to see how her responsibility develops), but I would want to get to know her scout leaders and other people who have intimate access to her because they are a much bigger danger than a stranger.

    Of course, very few pedophiles or molesters have been criminally convicted in the past, so this law may still not help much. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to downplay the risk posed by trusted adults. They are much more likely to abuse than a stranger.

  6. I started working in preschools in the mid 80’s right in the midst of the McMarten trail in California. The McMarten’s owned a preschool/daycare and were accused of child molesting. A circus ensued. At one point I remember that someone testified during the trail that teachers were playing the piano in the nude! Don’t quote me on any of this as my facts are about as vague as those of the prosecution. In any case the trail lasted about 5 years as I recall and they were eventually found not guilty. The family lost everything.

    In the meantime the ripple effects that ran through the industry were awful. As, a preschool teacher, I was not allowed to have a child sit on my lap, hug a child or kiss a child. I was permitted to put my hand only on there back to comfort them. At nap time, I had to teach them to cover themselves and not approach them while sleeping. We are talking about 2 to 5 year olds here.

    So we have normal everyday people jumping through hoops to prove they are not predators and somehow guilty priests get to go from one parish to another. Hmm? Time to rethink.

  7. I think the fear in 1692 was lack of information. Now we have swung the other way. You hear all day, every day the horrible things going on in this world. They were always going on, but we didn’t have CNN to broadcast 24 hours a day. I looks like times have gotten worse, but we are now being told about it all. There seems to be this growing competition about who can ‘look’ like the best parent. Easiest way to do that is to point out all the wrong other parents are doing. ‘I would never allow my child to do that. You must not care.’

  8. @Kirsten, I really don’t know why it seems worse, but I believe some reasons have to been awareness and proliferation of consumer products and consumer safety. If we can protect kids from accidents with products why wouldn’t we protect them with ideas, too? Once we achieved huge success in preventing tragedies with car seats and placing babies on their backs to sleep, bike helmets and the like we moved on to other things, like their feelings … Communication travels with the speed of light and when small amounts of people start mandating and large amounts willingingly follow, the culture shifts because you really “can’t” do things any more – like let your kid go out and play at the park — even if you wanted to because all the other kids are being trucked to soccer, or dance class or some other organized activity.

    But really? I’m just guessing.

    I know my mom talks about how her mom NEVER let her stay overnight at other people’s houses and wouldn’t let them play at someone’s home if their mother wasn’t around … BECAUSE she didn’t want the kids left alone with fathers. This was in the 40s … innocent times? I don’t think there ever have been innocent times, there have just been times with less fear and fewer products.

  9. The fear of how other will see it, reaction when considering if you should help a lost-looking kid is real. So far, I’ve always done the right thing, but not without thinking about it. Not anymore.

    And that makes me very angry, indeed.

  10. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Are there SO MANY teachers/scout leaders/father that have been caught and prosecuted that the statistics are so high for it happening that we all must be this fearful?

  11. *Sigh*

    I am also seeing a change in the way those of us who work with children on a daily basis – teachers, social workers, therapists etc – actually work with the children. I had a male therapist tell me some time ago that he would never touch a child that he worked with unless the parent was present. He works primarily with children under 5 – some as young as toddlers! I was flabergasted at how you could even work with a 2 or 3 year old and not touch them! He was equally astouded that I would let a child sit in my lap or hold their hand as we walked down a hallway. He told me I was “asking for a lawsuit”.

    I know that I may be risking false accusations – but I refuse to let this fear impact the treatment that I provide for the children I work with. Boundaries are good and keep everyone safe – but I fear that we are being scared into not really being able to help at all.

  12. I work as a secretary for the summer school program at a very well respected district in Illinois. It’s basically just me and our director, a middle school teacher in our district for over 30 years who run the whole thing.

    Any time there is any reason one of us has to interact with a lone student, or even a small group of students, I have to be present. Our 50-year-old male director refuses to be left alone with students because he is afraid someone will accuse him of something untoward. Whereas no one will question myself, a woman in my early twenties, waiting with small children whose parents are late picking them up or getting them bandaids, or what have you.

    It’s ridiculous. He runs our program! He’s a teacher! And he’s still worried and though he doesn’t talk about it, I know it’s because someone accused him in the past.

  13. @Socialwrkr24/7

    Good for you and keep up the excellent work!

    I am a psychotherapist I while I’ve never worked with small children (just as a mom to two small kids) am dismayed to hear that a therapist told you that he would never touch a client in any way ever. I worked with seriously mentally ill adults and regular “normal” run-of-the-mill adolescents and adults. Human contact is essential at all ages for the development of healthy social skills and self-confidence. Fear of lawsuits be damned. A competent, respectful, honest professional can do a lot of good with a well thought out hug or hand-holding. Professionals simply need to use their brain in taking appropriate precautions to ensure that nothing gets misunderstood. As a parent I would be equally dismayed to learn that my children’s pre-school teachers were unable to hug them, hold their hands, or have them sit on their laps. Love, affection, and tenderness are not the tools of pedophiles and abusers; fear, domination, and control are. We all need to stop fearing affection and start connecting with other human beings again.

  14. I’ve forgotten some of the details, but we had a case here in Southern California where the volunteers who take care of a railroad exhibit at the L. A. County Fairgrounds had to undergo background checks before they could be “docents” at the train display. One report said that the group (Railway & Locomotive Historical Society) got the authorities to back off; another said that some of the volunteers quit rather than submit to government snooping, even though they were completely trustworthy. This whole business or “perverts are everywhere!!” is starting to remind me of the anti-Communist “witch-hunts” from the days of Senator McCarthy back in the 1950’s.

  15. And we keep getting checked again and again. I haven’t worked for one supply agency for 3 months so I have to be checked again and I have to pay for it my self.

    But the check only works if a person has been caught already

  16. Today we know (at least I think most of us believe) that witches aren’t real; conversely we also know that pedophiles are, and what damage they can do. We also know that (as Dr. Confused says) most actual assaults are committed by someone a child knows.

    It seems to me with background checks the questions we need to ask are …
    1. If a person in this type of position (teacher, scout leader, parent volunteer, adult visiting a class or school) *is* a pedophile, does that pose a real threat to children in this setting? My guess is that with teachers and scout leaders the answer is yes; and with parent volunteers in many contexts (where they will not be alone with a child), no; and with adult visitors, almost certainly not (ditto).
    2. What is the burden of screening (and fearing) people in this type of position? I don’t mean the burden on the screenee, per se (we’re not inherently concerned about the well-being of the teachers or the volunteers, just the children), but on the willingness of qualified people to engage in these (presumably needed) roles and their ability to fill their responsibilities in those roles (i.e. I want my childcare providers to feel comfortable picking my toddler son up, hugging him, etc.).
    3. Other than screening, how can we make sure our children are safe? Watching them constantly is one answer (of varying plausibility and with its own costs to both child and parent), but with older children there are other (always imperfect) answers, like educating them about how to protect themselves. As I assume we want all children to be able to protect themselves eventually (as adults), this process needs to start at some point (no later than 17 years, 11 months, 30 days, I suppose, but much earlier would be my preference).

    There’s a tradeoff in balancing the benefits of screening with its costs. Personally I think we’ve gone too far in favor of screening, though others (probably not many here on this site) may disagree. Those of us unhappy with the status quo / current direction are, I think, aptly concerned about how to minimize its downsides and/or reverse direction.

    I think, too, that we like to imagine (erroneously) that because we can see with hindsight how something might have been prevented, we can prevent the next such incident … often with little attention to eye the costs of preventive measures. So if my child (heaven forbid) runs into the street and gets hit by a car, obviously a preventable incident, then yes, I can take steps to prevent that from ever happening again. But those steps will have costs, too. No, we don’t ever, ever, ever want any child to be hit by a car! But neither do we want to keep all kids locked off the street at all times, either, which is pretty much what it would take to prevent (with complete certainty) any car-caused child injuries…

  17. Imagine we discovered a new alien race on another planet, and we wanted to understand their world and their culture. And they asked us, “Would you like to understand our world by hearing about what things are like for 99.99% of us, or would you rather we focus on the 0.01%?”

    The answer we would give is obvious. But what do we do when we want to understand our *own* world — for example, when we seek to understand whether our world is a safe haven or a terrifying cesspool filled with criminals and perverts? We turn on the evening news. And then we say things to each other like, “Yep, the world is a totally crazy, violent, messed-up place.”

  18. It gets worse here in the UK – the govt have gone on record as stating that Home educating parents are abusers (or more likely to be) and have had a whole ‘review’ to ‘prove’ it (their figures are utterly wrong btw – HE’ers crunched the figures themselves and found that the true incidence within the HE community was less than half that within the general population. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sodding tragic!).

    The result of this is that they are attempting to force access to the home, to change the laws to allow them access to the child without the parents or an adult of the childs choosing, and a whole lot more… details can be seen on a whole variety of blogs. 😦

  19. I’m generally a free-range parent, and I give my daughter a lot of freedom and also a lot of responsibility. I have to say, I don’t understand why people are upset about background checks. Is it because the volunteers themselves are being made to pay for it? THAT seems wrong; as an administrator for an volunteer organization, I have to say that I believe that the organization should pay for the CORI check; the volunteer is donating their time, if there is a need for their services then the group should pay any associated expenses.

    I wish there was a registry to make it cost effective, because SO many people have multiple checks done and it would be a lot better if a person who has already had a background check by, say, the school would not need another one to be a scout leader. But I’ve never thought if it as any big deal to fill out the form to consent to a background check. It’s not a huge imposition, and I have to say that I DO like knowing that my kid’s teachers, coaches, or after school care providers are not convicted sex offenders. I also like knowing that the people running the youth sports organizations do not have prior convictions for fraud or other financial-related crimes.

    I guess because I take my responsibility as a volunteer seriously, and when I apply for the position, I do not at all mind if I am checked out – after all, my employer did a background check before hiring me. Why is this offensive to so many people?

  20. Dr. Confused,

    I also came to believe, through a combination of my own experience, hearing about experiences of others and statistics, that while stranger abduction is very rare, inappropriate sexual behavior of adults towards children is distressingly common. I am talking about a range of behaviors, from flashing to violent rape, from telling dirty jokes to seduction, perpetrated by strangers, acquaintances, family members, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, etc.

    Still I am saddened to read about all the teachers and therapists who have had to jump through hoops and change the way they interact with students and patients, surely reducing the effectiveness of the interaction, because of the fear of inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, the harm to children in these cases is hard to quantify.

    Not so in the case of the 2-year-old who drowned because the man who could have saved her life was afraid of having his intentions misconstrued. Perhaps we should publicize this story. The fear-mongering camp are always ready with a picture of some pretty white girl abducted by a stranger (20 years ago, and he wasn’t really a stranger, but who cares.) Much as I abhor these tactics, part of me wants to find a picture of that 2-year-old and put it up somewhere with a caption of “Do you want your child to be next?”

  21. Alexicographer,

    Great post. I really wish these organizations and government agencies would apply your common sense standards.

  22. A question about the background checks. What exactly do they check? If it is just that the person in question has not been convicted of a sex crime against children, isn’t that what the sex offender registry is for? If everyone can access the sex offender registry online, so can the person in charge of administering the volunteer program, right? Why place the extra burden on the volunteers?

  23. A great parallel you’ve drawn. Thank you!

  24. @Krolik: I absolutely agree that the story of the 2-year-old should be made public like they make public all the other stories.

    How utterly crushing to hear that someone didn’t stop to save a kid… I hope that the part we didn’t hear is that he at least called someone… but even then… I suppose with the amount of fear-mongering over there, he probably didn’t. Heaven forbid he called someone and she ended up dead and he was left being accused of it.

    The village is now afraid to help raise the child and the kids are suffering for it. That’s the real shame. 😦

  25. I believe subjecting all volunteers, even those in positions where they could not possibly cause harm to children to repeated, expensive criminal checks is wrong. So is forcing a potential volunteer to provide access to criminal or credit history that could not possibly be related to danger they may or may not pose to children in their care. And it is wrong when a teacher or a therapist is afraid to hug a child, and even more wrong when a stranger is afraid to offer help. At the same time, I do believe that the absolute majority of adults who do not pose any danger to children should be aware that there is a minority who do and adjust their interactions with children accordingly.

    For example, in an online forum a long time ago there was a man who said he likes giving neighborhood kids rides in his fancy sports car. He was not well acquainted with any of these kids’ parents but they either did not know about the rides or for whatever reason felt that they could trust this near stranger. I do believe that he was behaving irresponsibly by teaching these children that it was ok to accept rides from someone they did not know very well, especially without their parents’ knowledge. And if the next person who offers them a ride molests them, he will bear part of the responsibility. Any comments?

  26. They require background checks to chaperone my daughter’s class. The whole issue offends me. Our society is making men out to be the big bad wolves ready to endanger or molest the first child they see. My partner has said he wouldn’t even consider smiling at another child UNLESS our daughter is standing next to him. Then it seems to be alright.

    My problem with background checks and the label of “sexual predator” is that anybody who has been convicted of any sexual crime gets placed on that database. Example: I know of a man who was convicted of rape. The “rape victim” was his sixteen year old girlfriend. He was eighteen at the time of the “rape” her parents accused him of. After he got out of jail he married his girlfriend. They have been married for five years now and have a beautiful baby boy. Except that he has trouble finding jobs and isn’t allowed to visit his son at daycare due to his conviction. What is this world coming to.

  27. @lisa … people oppose background checks for many reasons. Privacy being at the top of the list. Whenever you create and maintain huge databases of information, taking a volunteer’s fingerprint digitally, for instance, that fingerprint will remain forever even if it’s deleted. The potential for abuse of that information can not be minimized.

    And what if a person’s arrest or conviction for shoplifting or other crimes come up as part of that search? Should THAT preclude them for volunteering at a child’s school? Should that be part of public knowledge?

    As others here have said the cost factor in relation to the actual occurance of rooting out potential pederasts is also in question.

  28. The civil libertarian in me worries that this is just a backdoor, seemingly innocuous way for governmental and quasi-governmental organizations to collect information. It’s similar to what happens every time some politician who wants to be “tough on crime” and appeal to soccer moms presses for another asinine sex crime law: in their heart of hearts, most people probably think, “Wow, so some guy who had consensual sex with his 16 year old girlfriend now won’t be able to live within a mile of a school or park and will have to wear an ankle bracelet for the rest of his life? That seems like an overreaction” but nobody will actually say that it is in public, for fear of being branded a friend of sex predators. My suspicious mind wonders if this is exactly the kind of sentiment that surveillance happy Great Britain is relying upon: anyone who says, “Now, hold on here a minute, the government will have credit reports and fingerprints and maybe even DNA for one fourth of its citizens? That seems like a civil rights matter and vaguely reminiscent of V is for Vendetta” will immediately be called out as sympathetic to child rapists so that their critique of government will go unnoticed. Maybe I watch too many episodes of The Prisoner, but I worry not only about all of the two-year-olds that our hysteria over sexual molestation is going to doom to drowning, but also what kind of outrageous government interference and information gathering our hysteria is meant to facilitate.

  29. I recently saw an ad that just infuriated me–Jane Velez-Mitchell of CNN was “informing” us about how dangerous the world is for children. Well, Jane, I can’t abide fear-mongering…and that’s my issue.

  30. The problem is that even if you are free from cognitive bias and realize that we’re not surrounded by perverts, you still have to act in accordance with the mainstream.

    If I run a company or a school or whatever, I am absolutely going to require potential employees prove that they’re squeaky clean before hiring them. First, it’s their burden, not mine, and so it doesn’t really cost ME anything. I can especially afford to do this in today’s employment climate.

    Secondly, IF one of my employees or volunteers DOES end up molesting a child, or worse, I am inevitably going to be facing a lawsuit from that kid’s parents. And we all know that nothing even has to have happened. A child or their family could simply ACCUSE my employee or volunteer of molestation.

    In any event, I’ve got a big ol’ lawsuit headed my way. And do you know who’s going to be on the jury? That’s right. The general public, in the grip of irrational fear, and hand-picked for their inability to appreciate statistics or reason. I can hire the best lawyers around, and we can put forth all the arguments against this sort of crazy, irrational suspicion and fear-mongering, but it won’t do a lick of good.

    “You could have just done a background check! Everybody does that! These people wanted to work with CHILDREN for God’s sake! They could be perverts! Why would you trust somebody to watch other peoples’ children if you didn’t make SURE, as best you could, that they were not some sort of pervert?”

    Those are the people that are going to judge me. Even if I think differently, I’ve got to follow the mainstream fear craze in my hiring practices. It’s unfortunate, but it can’t possibly stop.

  31. As a follow-up, even if a background check or whatever wouldn’t have turned up anything (because the accused employee or volunteer doesn’t have any sort of record), they’ll STILL use it against me. The opposing side will say that my failure to properly vet my employees shows a pattern of lack of supervision and general ignorance to the kids’ well-being, even if that particular employee had no prior dirt.

    Billion-dollar idea: Start a company that develops a psychological test purporting to predict a subject’s propensity or risk for molesting children, even in the absence of any prior allegations of misconduct. “Because you can never be too safe when it comes to children.” Hawk your test all over the place. Give it away for free to states. Then charge through the nose to private companies for the tests, which they’ll have to buy, because it’s become standard practice.

  32. @ Dr. Confused- you said, “I would want to get to know her scout leaders and other people who have intimate access to her because they are a much bigger danger than a stranger.”

    Yes! We should get to know the teachers, scout leaders, church youth leaders, and the parents of our child’s friends. These are people who have a huge impact on our children, and we should know what that entails. Does that mean they should all be subject to background checks at their own expense? I don’t think so. I think we should do exactly as you say and become acquainted with these people and our neighbors. That won’t erase the danger. We’re bound to make mistakes in judgment. However, background checks don’t erase the danger either. What if the adult in question is a first-time offender? A background check won’t show that, but getting to know the person can give you insight into their character, an instinctual like or dislike, or even a new friend.

  33. Just now while watching the news they stated that 3.5 million children are hurt each year playing in team sports. 3.5 million. Where’s the outrage? Where’s the call for a boycott? Where’s the call for more safety measures? TIME TO PANIC! Kidding, of course. But it helps keep things in perspective. Everything is a risk, it’s just a question of how much risk. In this case, team sports are higher on the risk scale than many other activities. It’s upsetting to know that stranger danger and fear of possible snatchers remains so high, when other more real threats are ignored.

  34. My worry about mandatory background checks is that they’ll drive away the honest volunteers, while letting through the perverts who’ve learned to game the system. Which is safer: the scout troop escorted by a dozen random adults, or the one escorted by two non-convicted pedophiles?

  35. I remember reading somewhere that fear of pedophiles goes in cycles. There was a cycle in the 20s, and a smaller one in the 50s. We’re in the middle of a particularly strong cycle now, but maybe the growing popularity of FRK and all that is indicating (finally) that it’ll die down somewhat.

    If the first fact is correct, I forget where I read it. I hope somebody else can substantiate it for me.

  36. Okay, on the one hand, I agree (of course. paranoia is anti-rationality). But, witches don’t really exist. They never did. At least how the Salem folk imagined them. (Wiccans are not what we’re talking about.) But child rapists DO exist. Just not in the profuse numbers we are led to believe. So to completely equate the two, I’m not feeling it.

    I had a moment today. I found my almost 5 year old talking to a young man in the next building. This young man was outside with his nice old dog and my son was just gabbing away. The young man seemed odd and kind of quiet, and he remarked about how cute my son was. I thanked him, my son went to play, and the young man went back inside.
    My Mom Senses were tingling. Am I gonna just go off on this guy and accuse him of being a molester? Do I even think he IS? The answer is no. But, I’ve taken note of where he lives, and I will be watching, and later I reiterated to my son the importance of never going into anyone’s house ever (if it’s a grownup) or without asking me (if it’s a kid or people we know). There are a lot of parents with kids here too, and I’ve cultivated relationships with most of them. Most of the other kids look out for mine, since he’s one of the youngest.
    Be a savvy parent in the know, and don’t ignore your Mom or Dad Senses!

  37. Uly, you’re probably thinking of Jenkin’s book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in America.

    Stanley Cohen’s older but still useful text, Folk Devils and Moral Panics is another good resource. Haven’t seen that one in years, but amazon says he released an updated edition.

    And of course, if you’re REALLY ready to be challenged, and if you can tolerate his brilliant yet admittedly one-sided writing, you might like James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Personally I think he attempts to do too much with this book which makes it kind of muddled, but it’s got some excellent coverage of craziness like the McMartin trial.

  38. Uly: You might be thinking of the work of Philip Jenkins.

    Alexicographer: You’re right about the tendency to react to an incident by taking obtrusive measures that, if they were in place, might have prevented that exact incident but wouldn’t have much positive effect on anything in the future.

    As a reductio ad absurdum, let’s say that a child is sexually abused by a school volunteer who was born on January 30, 1941. Clearly the incident wouldn’t have happened if policy forbade people born on January 30, 1941 from volunteering. So let’s institute a policy forbidding any born on that date from volunteering in the future! (actually, if we had a policy prohibiting people born on that date from holding national office in the US we’d have been spared an awful lot of misery, but that’s another story).

    The idea of credit checks for volunteers and the like is just absurd. Are we going to tell parents who got laid off that they can’t use their newly free time working with kids just because they have some overdue bills? Is the new graduate in elementary education going to have trouble finding work because she didn’t have a credit card in college and therefore doesn’t have an established credit history? The only “legitimate” reason I could see for credit-checking volunteers is to get a group who could be hit up to make big donations.

    As toyfoto pointed out, there’s the risk of disqualifying people for minor legal scrapes, unrelated to child abuse, in their distant pasts. I know, for example, of successful coaches who were banned because of 25-year-old pot busts (punished by $50 fines) from their college days. Arbitrary policies don’t help; there needs to be room for judgment. If a background check shows a DUI conviction, it makes sense not to let that person drive kids, but no sense at all to prevent him/her from visiting a classroom.

    A zero-tolerance policy toward minor youthful offenses also tends to discriminate against minorities and people from poor backgrounds, since middle-class white kids usually wind up with “station adjustments” that don’t leave any record when they’re caught for such things, whereas others get the book thrown at them.

  39. I’ve noticed that nobody’s mentioned that many institutions are now required to conduct background checks on volunteers by their insurance companies. I’m involved in a small nursery school, and when we were shopping around for insurance, those policies that didn’t require background checks cost significantly more upfront. We ended up going with a policy that required us to run background checks on volunteers.

    We spend $10/person for a background check that double checks that people are using their own soc. sec. #, that they aren’t on sex offender or terrorists lists, and that they haven’t committed major crimes. We don’t require these checks for folks to visit and help in the classroom, but if they are helpers who will possibly be alone–even for a short time to walk down the hall–with a child, then it’s required.

    I don’t love this system. Obviously it doesn’t help for “bad guys” who haven’t been caught, some parents aren’t crazy about releasing the personal information, and it just feels intrusive when all of our parents together form such a wonderful community. But nursery schools need insurance, and with limited time and resources, we made the best choices that we could. It’s easy to be outraged that schools discourage volunteerism in this way, but keep in mind that it is often complicated and difficult for schools and organizations to find a balance between the competing demands of current laws, the insurance system, and a wide range of parenting opinions about how this should be handled.

  40. As usual, Lenore, you make so much sense!

  41. @littlepurplegoth: We deal with this in the States too. I had to get a new doctor because the one we had grilled me every time we were in about why I homeschool, what my kids do all week, what interaction they have with the outside world. He even questioned why my daughter was so thin. I brought in pictures of my siblings and I as children as we were all very small and thin. Plus, she’s an athlete. She doesn’t sit around watching TV and playing video games. He was convinced I was homeschooling to hide something. We have a new doctor now that treats us like everyone else.

  42. @Tana nad Dr. Confused – I wish you guys had been another post when I stated I wished I had access to my daughter’s school to say hello to her teacher once in a while. I would have liked to walk her to her class and say “Good morning” once in a while. I was jumped on by at least 3 different posters for being ridiculous and not realizing that school is my children’s place and not mine. This flabbergasted me because we would never hire a sitter after a 5 minute meet and greet and then leave our children with them for 40 hours. Yet we do this with teachers. How many people interview lots of doctors to find just the right one to see little Suzie yet they never see the doctor without us. I didn’t think the teacher would harm my child and I didn’t want to be her friend but why the total disconnect? They have the most influence over our children besides ourselves but we’re not supposed to want to have anything to do with them. I don’t get it.

  43. accountingninja: “Odd and a little quiet” almost certainly means the guy is harmlessly eccentric (possibly with some neurodevelopmental differences). You can’t evaluate risk from it any more than you could by flipping a coin. The overwhelming majority of child sex abusers come off as the kind of people you can trust; if anything, they seem almost too perfect. You can’t go by stereotypes; you can only look at observable behavior.

    Read about the Dale Akiki case for an ugly incident of someone being nifonged for child molestation just because he looked weird. Teaching kids to fear difference doesn’t make them any safer (not only is the false positive rate too high, so is the false negative rate); it just makes them scared and intolerant.

  44. no no no! Please don’t misunderstand. He’s probably harmless. I myself would probably be described as “eccentric”. 🙂 Weirdly enough, our buildings seem to have an abundance of geeks, goths, punks and other assorted eccentrics, lots with kids and some without.
    I just make mental notes. I never push down any feelings I might have one way or another; I merely keep them stewing. Vigilance! And all that. Plus, I talk to my son a lot. If he goes to a new friend’s house, I ask: Is his/her mom/dad nice? What did you do? etc.

    I guess my point is: I can never be sure. I need to keep my wits about me, and my eyes and ears always open. Not paranoid, but I also don’t want to be willfully ignorant.

  45. @accountingninja. I’m afraid I still don’t get why you put that guy on a special watch list. If his looking queer and acting shy isn’t the reason, why mention these qualities at all?

  46. @accountingninja. I’m totally with you on this one. Whether right or wrong, whether it’s because we’ve been conditioned or whatever, the one thing you should never do is disregard your gut feelings. It needs no explaination.

  47. Insightful point. We fail to remember that if we are not watchful history will repeat itself. We view ourselves as informed and enlightened when in fact we have not made much progress since 1692.

  48. What stoked the trials in Salem? The triumph of emotionalism over reason and an individual need for attention and the illusion of importance that brings. Today the over-zealous pastors of Salem find voice in the outraged voices of news anchors who keep us watching with statements like, “You won’t want to miss this if you have children!” “New details about the monster who moved into the community.”

    Outrage and fear are the default emotions of our age. News directors know that these two emotions will keep people glued to the television and watching advertising. I know promotions guys at TV stations who can make the most benign story seem treacherous. And that’s their job!

    We are trapped in a vicious circle where the media foments hysterical belief that our children are in danger, which prompts litigation, which prompts more media, which drives the outrage, which keeps us watching, which sells commercials, which reinforces the profitability of this cycle. Remember, things make the news because they are unusual. (Man bites dog, for example.)

    My heart breaks for any family who has really encountered abuse, abduction or any tragedy related to children. But my heart also breaks for the 18-year-olds who are scared to go to college, the young professionals, male and female, who cannot become truly independent because they have been so saddled with fear that they are afraid to reach out beyond the confines of the safe zone. (As another reader points out, the risk from people known to children are greater than the risks from the unknown, but humans have always been afraid of the dark, whatever form that darkness takes.)

    The fear-driven life is a horrible thing. But so is abandoning common sense. The realities of our culture may disturb us, but where have we contributed to them? If many of the voices raised on this board could be more widely heard, perhaps this force of fear can be lessened.

    The trials in Salem ended when anyone on the street or in the village could be accused for any reason. People were using the accusation of being a witch for retribution for any slight, however imaginary. As the accusations became more and more ridiculous, and forced confessions were recanted, common sense prevailed. Ultimately, people as influential as Increase Mather spoke out against the trials and they petered out.

    Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect. Witchcraft doesn’t exist, and abuse and abduction, do happen. However, reason and attention can go a long way to mitigating emotionalism and irrational fear.

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, he said that he’d been through many terrible things in his life–and some of them actually happened. As with the Salem trials, when we allow imagination to trump reason, chaos, as they say in TV Guide blurbs, ensues.

  49. the only children abductions that are out of control — is the LEGALIZED KIDNAPPING of children – by the Dept. of Human Services / CPS / DSSH /AFDC or whatever they call themselves in YOUR state.

    These are the ones we need to be concerned about .. These are numerous – and VERY real.

    no jury trials / children are permanently removed from their families every day.

    as a grandmother – I have no rights – and without a big pile of money to buy an attorney – I have no way to buy myself into a “court room” to have a say. I filed my own Motion to Intervene — and in the midst of my speaking – the judge stood up – said “we are now off the record” and walked out.

    My grandsons were taken on March 23, 2007. I have been banned by the “court” — from any contact. I now have no idea WHERE they are / or HOW they are. and no – I’m not fighting against their parents to get these chidlren — we are ALL fighting this system – that LEGALLY KIDNAPS children — for $$$. See Title IVe funding to see how this works.

    No elected official will take this on – (one or two have – but in GA – the former Senator’s own party ran someone against her!!) — because it is an economic stimulus package — all the money lfowing into the region -to be paid to foster care providers, case workers, non-profits who hold the classes that are court ordered as part of the “service plan” — its quite a money laundering operation … once you really look into it .. All of these care providers/lawyers/case workers/ and everyone else who gets a paycheck – based upon this taking and placing of children … spend their money – at Wal Mart / shopping for SUV’s / plasma TVs etc. So – the economy booms …. THINK if this funding was stopped! You think we have financial woes now??? Just imagine!!

    And – who suffers? Its all built on the backs of the “taken and placed” children.

  50. One in every four girls living today will be sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday, usually by someone that they know. I am one of five girls in my family. Three of us were sexually abused. My sister and I at a family reunion by a distant teenage cousin and our youngest sister by a great uncle that she had only met three or four times in twelve years. I was also molested by a teenage babysitter (male). My mother was molested, by her brother-in-law. My grandmother was married to a man in the 1930’s who sexually molested her niece. She divorced him but the damage was already done. That’s just my family and just the ones I know about.

    Our government wants to do all these background checks and spend obscene amounts of money trying to keep our kids safe from strangers who are probably never even going to have an opportunity to harm them (like volunteers at a school party).

    It is up to parents to keep their kids safe by educating them and not putting them in situation where it is more likely the child could be victimized. My kids do not sleepover at people’s houses and I am not alone. I have many friends who have the same policy. I also keep track of my kids at family functions and though I may not have my eyes on them every second I am very cognisant of where my kids are and who is in the same vicinity. I also talk to my kids about everything, not to scare them but to educate them and give them a voice. I do not put my kids in situations where they will be alone with other adults and when they are with friends and out playing (which is at least two hours a day) I have them follow the buddy system. It keeps them and their friends safe. Is this a guarantee that nothing will ever happen to them? No. But it is proactive, and it is the best I can do for them.

    I normally totally agree with you, Lenore, and get where you are coming from. Sexual abuse of our children is real, witches aren’t. I do agree that our government and the government in the UK are going overboard and most of these background checks are a waste of money, but that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real. It just seems, as usual, that they have missed the mark.

  51. these background checks are a waste of money, but that doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t real. It just seems, as usual, that they have missed the mark.

    Perfectly said, Jacmama.

    I’ve been away for a couple of days without net or I would’ve mentioned this sooner. Not to get completely off topic but I’d like to point out that witches ARE real, and not all of them are Wiccans. There’s a difference between the two that’s not really important here but I thought I’d point it out, being a witch and all.

    I think the Salem comparison is a good one to make, Lenore, especially since no actual witches were ever caught. This kind of over-cautiousness towards all parents is absurd and definitely will drive away the ones who really want to volunteer.

    The aura of fear that surrounds anything or anyone new or unknown is a very real factor in why so many actual witches, neo-Pagans, Wiccans and the rest choose not to reveal their spiritual leanings to anyone but close friends or family. It’s the same fear from Salem in 1692, the exact same one that makes police background checks mandatory for all the parents who just want to pop in and say hi to their kid at lunchtime. It’s stupid.

    I apologize in advance if that was disjointed/didn’t make a lot of sense. I’ve been in a car for over 20 hours in the past 36 and I need to make and eat some dinner!

  52. we found out that the husband of the woman who did childcare for us was a pedophile. He registered in a different state. I wish he had been required to have a background check before they were allowed to watch children. Not so silly when you deal with the aftermath.

  53. If she was the primary caregiver, Anonymous, and not the husband, there was no reason for anyone to suspect that he NEEDED to have one done. Sometimes shit just happens.

  54. I think there’s a difference between people who *work* with children and those who volunteer–but insurance requirements do drive a lot of it. And frankly, I think the same people are being checked over and over.

    But the other thing is the practical aspect of time: I volunteered at both children’s schools (different schools so 2 background checks), led a Girl Scout troop at a neighborhood school (both of which required a background check). Between filling out forms, reading required pamphlets, and attending a required afternoon class about child sexual abuse, I spent nearly 6 hours meeting the requirements. I did all of these things in September of last year. I got notices that the state finished the background checks in the last month, in the month AFTER school was out, after volunteering all year.

    And now it’s almost time to start the process all over again …

  55. @jecmama, are your kids very young? Or will you never, at any age, allow them to have a sleepover? I remember sleepovers at friends’ houses as some of the most fun times growing up. My daughter has so far only slept over at MY friends’ houses (friends with kids, but it was usually for babysitting purposes), but she had her first friend sleep over at our house this year (6 yrs old). They had a blast! *I* did not, but that’s another story 🙂

    He older (half)sister, whose mom died when she was 8, used to go camping every year with her dad. She usually asked to bring a friend, and he allowed it. I remember that one year, I think she was 11, a friend was supposed to come but at the last minute the parents backed out, having forgotten that she didn’t have a mom so it would be just dad watching the kids for the week. I felt so bad for her… it seemed wrong that she would be denied the simple pleasure of having a friend go camping with her because she had lost her mom young. Now, on the other hand, I take MY daughter camping, and she wants to bring a friend this summer, and noone has a problem with it. I think we might be taking two friends, a brother and sister, and I know their parents are not at all hesitant to let their son come camping with me. I wouldn’t let my daughter spend the night at a friend’s house unless I knew the parents, but I do know many of her friends and their families and I trust them. *Most* people are good people, and if there was ever a problem I know my daughter would not hesitate to tell me, or to call to be picked up and brought home.

  56. The other thing is that the kind of witches that people in Salem feared were also real. Even if you don’t believe that what the witches claimed to be able to do with their practices was effective, there WERE people who engaged in practices known as witchcraft (though there’s no evidence that any of the people prosecuted and persecuted in Salem were among them), and the practices were forbidden.

    So the parallel holds to that degree — there were people who were feared because they did things that were forbidden, but the fear was out of proportion to the reality of what was actually happening, and the means of dealing with it utterly misguided. It really doesn’t matter to the parallel whether or not you believe that witchcraft was “real,” since it at least existed.

  57. When I was in kindergarten I left school late, after the crossing guards went home. I started home but soon came to a street. I knew I wasn’t supposed to cross the street alone, but I didn’t know what else to do. So I started crying. A Stranger pulled over and asked me where I lived. I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk to Strangers, so I pointed across the street. He asked if I needed help across. I nodded. He helped me cross the street and I ran home.

    When my husband was 2, he wandered out of his house into a snow storm wearing nothing but a diaper. (He wanted to go to the 7-11.) A few blocks away, a lady saw him outside her window and brought him in her house while she waited for his mom to look for him.

    It’s too too bad this man didn’t feel like helping was an option.

  58. a) I’m a Witch, and not Wiccan, and I have to agree with Jen that ongoing discrimination is a reason Witches try to stay invisible. That said, I’m certainly not consorting with Satan or sending my spirit out upon anyone. 🙂

    b) In Massachusetts right now we’re debating a reform to the state’s CORI laws that will limit what can be reported on a CORI and how far back into your history these forms can dig. If you live here, call your state rep and encourage them to support these reforms.

    c) The McMartin preschool trials were mentioned above; they’re a great example of exactly the same kind of mass hysteria that seized Salem in the 1690s. Ordinary parents became a frenzied mob, doing crazy things like excavating the lot next to the preschool in search of secret tunnels containing Satanic temples.

  59. also: this story reminds me of a news item from last year, also from Britain, about a father who was not allowed to sit with his own children while flying home with them, because of an airline policy that adult men may not sit beside minor children.

  60. @peter: the reason I mentioned it was I’m not sure if he was just naturally weird and quiet, or if he became that way when I introduced myself. I had noticed my son talking w/him for at least 10 minutes on my porch before I went out to get him, mainly to stop my chatty son from bothering the guy. But the guy didn’t seem enthused to see me, and he promptly went in after a few sentences. (And yes, I’m a totally cool person and did NOT give him the stinkeye or anything. ;)) But it wasn’t SO obvious that I could call it. It was one of those situations where people might go “Did he just..? Nah!” And forget about it. But I won’t forget. He is logged in my brain for future reference, as are many of my neighbors, good, bad or neutral.

    re: witches. I was the first one that said they “don’t exist”. I know they do, but they aren’t going around making people sick and dying or killing livestock with spells or anything. The things they blamed witches for! *rolleyes* It’s more a religion/set of beliefs than Harry Potter spells. (And if I’m not mistaken, using the practice for any bad intent will visit even worse karma on that person, so evil-minded witchcraft is not encouraged. Correct me if I’m wrong, though…)

  61. My local elementary school requires that volunteering parents get CORIed and attend a two-night 6 hour volunteer class. The class is run twice a year before the two major field trips. This seems like such major overkill and prohibits many parents from volunteering. The school is hurting for money, there are 26 kids per class. Instead of prohibiting volunteerism they should be clamoring for it. It is beyond silly! The school is locked down 24-7. Parents are not allowed to tour classrooms except on specially designated open houses.
    That makes me more nervous that the fact that there might be an UnCORIED parent on the next apple picking expedition.

  62. Dr David Kenneth Cochrane Registered Sex Offender Six Counts of rape including minors, three counts of indecent assault all involving patients dating back to the early millennium. Psychiatrist 6 months in Jail, 2 years probation, including 6 month license suspension. North Bay Canada Ontario and now re-employed for the regional health centre.

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