Fear of adults has devastating effects for kids

Efforts to keep children safe often end up with negative repercussions

As hundreds of thousands of Canadian children participate in summer camps and outdoor activities and a new generation prepares to go to school for the first time next month, concerns about child safety can understandably creep up on, and unnerve, parents.

Michael Dunahee, a four-year-old, disappeared from a Victoria playground in 1992.

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Madeleine McCann, another four-year-old, vanished from a Portuguese resort apartment in 2007.

Elizabeth Smart was a teenager abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 and returned to her family nine months later.

We know their names because their stories are rare. If children disappeared every day, we would have long forgotten the roll-call.

As Randall Hopley is set to be sentenced for the abduction of Kienan Hebert in Sparwood, it's important to acknowledge the devastating effect these cases have on child-adult relations far removed from the crime.

One of the banes of living largely disconnected from one another is that it is easier for those who want to appear to stand firmly for something to distort our perceptions of reality through the 24/7 news coverage. Even official statistics often confuse and conflate figures for runaways, temporary absences and removals by friends and family members with those cases we fear most - abduction by strangers.

The well-meaning and entirely understandable question - "But what if one of those few was mine?" - has led many parents and child-welfare agencies into paroxysms of action and paralysis. A culture of fear has been facilitated by a burgeoning child-protection industry.

The United Kingdom should serve as a warning to parents, lobby groups and governments as to the dangers of conflating extreme events with mainstream experience.

In the U.K., the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act - rushed through Parliament in a knee-jerk response to the McCann case, as well as a handful of others - led to a requirement that all adults who come into regular contact with children be vetted by the authorities.

As exposed by the campaigning group Manifesto Club, this is a minefield of legal and linguistic confusion, leaving aside the most problematic element, which is that we are effectively teaching the next generation that adults are not to be trusted.

So it's not just teachers who now need to obtain an enhanced criminal record check, but also music tutors, sports coaches and parents who plan to take someone else's children to an activity in their vehicles.

Various organizations advise their staff and members on the correct procedure for guiding a young hand to hold a violin bow or a tennis racket. So who, in the end, is really poisoning adult-child relations - the rare pedophiles or the dominant self-styled experts?

In the rush to protect children from all possible harm, logic and reason went out the window. Now photography at nativity plays and sports events is often banned. Teachers report avoiding comforting distressed children.

An industry has been created that encourages a new form of apartheid between adults and children. Adult volunteers we desperately need for all types of activities have opted out for fear of the perennial question as to what motivates their interest. Youth leaders who want to help the next generation learn from the mistakes they made also dropped out. They didn't want their youthful misdemeanours advertised to all.

Being cleared by the authorities to work with children is for a particular time and context. The checks have to be renewed or done afresh for different types of activities or to pursue the same activity in different areas. Vetting never stops.

None of this has made any child safer. Real safety comes from understanding risk, usually through having taken a few. Teaching children that strangers are usually an opportunity, rather than a threat, is healthier for children, parents and communities.

And if our children are ever to develop a sense of moral responsibility, this will come from being allowed to experiment - usually in unsupervised settings - as it is only then that they can come to understand and appreciate the need for, and purpose of, rules, codes and values.

Anyone who has lost a child has my deepest sympathy. I hope I never have to feel that pain. But equally, let us not implement presumed solutions that are unlikely to have precluded such tragedies.

Children wrapped in cotton may appear and even feel safe. But in the long run this may incapacitate and infantilize them. Open the doors and put trust to the test. The kids are all right.

Prof. Bill Durodié is head of the conflict analysis and management program at Royal Roads University.

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