For more than 30 years, John Whitefoot has hung a Block Parent sign in the window of his Cambridge, Ont., home. In all that time, only one child has knocked on his door. "And the kid just wanted a drink of water," Mr. Whitefoot says, chuckling. "I don't think the kids really look for the sign."
In recent years, the once-familiar red and white placard that signals a haven for children has been disappearing from Canadian neighbourhoods. Kids aren't knocking on doors, parents aren't volunteering and police say there aren't enough security measures in place to keep child predators from exploiting the program.
Now, the 39-year-old Canadian organization is reinventing itself with tough new security measures. Starting next month, block parents will face a 10-step screening procedure, a home visit and reference checks. They will get a revamped sign for their living-room windows, complete with an expiry date and a serial number to foil counterfeiters.
"We're doing the best that we can to make sure that this is a safe place for a child to go," said Linda Patterson, president of the Block Parent Program of Canada.
The efforts are an attempt to appease the public and the police after several jurisdictions - including Prince Edward Island, Toronto and parts of British Columbia - cancelled their block parent programs because of volunteer shortages and security concerns, Ms. Patterson said.
The changes resulted from a nationwide risk assessment that the group undertook with long-time law enforcement partners such as the RCMP.
"The program was old and it needed some updating and security features added to it," said Sergeant Martin Blais, a spokesman for the RCMP.
He said the move is preventive, and the changes aren't being made in response to a particular incident involving a child.
Security concerns are not the only problems for the Block Parent program, which has been fighting drastic declines for years.
In the past 12 years, the number of block parent homes in Canada has plummeted to 52,000 from 253,000, while the number of communities with block parent programs has dropped to 400 from about 1,000.
"The numbers look really bad," Ms. Patterson said from her New Brunswick home. "Thirty-nine years ago when the program was first developed, there were a lot more stay-at-home moms. Now, with society the way it is, and the transient population, it's harder to find people to volunteer for their community and open their door to a stranger."
Cash shortages mean individual communities haven't been able to get the word out about the program, either. That means kids aren't showing up on the doorsteps, said Mr. Whitefoot in Cambridge.
Mr. Whitefoot, 70, and his wife, Joyce, were among the first wave of recruits to Waterloo Region Block Parents in 1977. "We'll stay with it as long as we're capable," he said.
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