Forget about crumbling schools and kids who can’t read. Here in Toronto, our school board is debating whether to require grannies who help out on Grade 5 school trips to obtain criminal background checks. Toronto’s schools have around 35,000 regular volunteers, and no one can recall a single incident of trouble. Still, you can’t be too careful. As one school board spokesperson told The Globe’s Marcus Gee, “Who wants to take that risk? That parent could be with a kid for a couple of minutes, and that’s really all it takes.”
Our schools are already in semi-permanent lockdown. Just try to get into one. After the 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty reannounced his locked-door policy and threw another $10-million at door buzzers and security cameras.
But the real panic isn’t over psychotic shooters. It’s over pedophiles, who, according to current folklore, lurk everywhere. Stranger danger means that our children must never be left alone – not even for an instant! – or allowed to walk to school by themselves. The cost of parenting is hypervigilance, and never have we been more hyper.
Fifty years ago, child molesters were simply part of the background noise of life. Everybody knew they existed, but no one made a big deal of it. Your parents (and other kids) might have warned you to stay away from the creepy guy down the street. But strange adult men were not automatically objects of suspicion. When I was 9, my parents allowed the school-bus driver to take me to a baseball game – just the two of us – even though they scarcely knew him. (Guess what? Nothing happened.) That kind of outing would be unthinkable today.
What’s behind our panic? One factor may be the flood of mothers into the work force, and the increasing need to leave children with someone else. No other person can possibly care about a kid as much as a parent does, and the powerful combination of guilt and worry can stoke all manner of anxieties.
Then came the era of child-abuse scandals, both real and imaginary. Incidents that had been hushed or covered up for years became the stuff of public scandal. Suddenly, child molesters were everywhere – teachers, Boy Scout leaders, priests. The Roman Catholic Church, residential schools and other institutions were exposed as complicit in crimes. Feminists and other activists insisted that childhood sexual abuse, far from being rare, was common, and that millions of women had been sexually traumatized by their fathers, uncles and brothers.
The hysteria over childhood sexual abuse crested in the 1980s and ’90s, when daycare workers were accused of monstrous crimes against their charges. With sympathetic coaching from therapists and police, tiny tots came up with ludicrous tales of ritual abuse. Some people went to jail for imaginary crimes. Canada had its share of these cases, including an alleged pedophile ring in Cornwall, Ont., that attracted massive media coverage. A $53-million commission of inquiry failed to find evidence of such a ring, but the damage had been done. The spectre of predators lurking behind every bush is now embedded in the public consciousness.
Politicians of all stripes have not hesitated to capitalize on our fears. Tougher sentencing for pedophiles and sex-abuse registries are popular with the public, even though there’s no evidence that they make kids safer.
The truth is more banal. Kids are at greatest risk not from the pervert in the bushes – or the volunteer parent down the block – but from their own families. That’s not the stuff of headlines, though. So you’re not about to hear it.