The iconic red and white Block Parent sign of a boy holding a woman’s hand – not his mom’s, but a helpful neighbour’s – was a ubiquitous feature of neighbourhoods across Canada only a decade ago.
But the children’s-help program, founded after the abduction and murder of a boy in London, Ont., 45 years ago this month, is now in trouble itself.
Its decline has tracked with a fundamental change in the nature of childhood.
A generation ago, children would walk out the door and play freely, with the expectation they’d be home for dinner or go to a neighbour’s house if need be.
But now kids lead highly structured lives, where every minute of their day is accounted for, even if many of those minutes are spent indoors playing video games.
And when children are away from adult supervision, they have cellphones or GPS tracking units.
Where once it took a village, it now takes a device.
Today, some groups across the country that help children in need play down Block Parent as an important tool. One of them is Street Smart Kidz, a non-profit organization based just outside Victoria. It offers advice to children who might find themselves in trouble, whether it’s a suspicious stranger or a potential encounter with a bully. Heading toward a house with a Block Parent sign in the window – a safe haven for their parents’ generation – is not high on the list.
“In seminars, we tell parents, ‘Listen, as a last resort you tell your kids to go to a Block Parent,’ but before that we give them 10 other things to do rather than do that,” says Steven Baird, managing director of Street Smart Kidz. “I personally will not recommend those homes to anybody.”
Block Parent aids children in a variety of frightening situations – scared by animals, lost at large events – although the organization could not provide the total number of incidents over the course of the program. But the decline in participation is dramatic: There were 253,000 homes in 1995, compared with about 25,000 today. “We’re in dire distress,” says Linda Patterson, president of Block Parent Canada, from her home in Oromocto, N.B.
Furthering the program’s woes was an RCMP risk assessment in 2007 that required Block Parent to collect every sign across the country and reissue them with serial numbers. It is also much more difficult to attract volunteers when, in a post-9/11 world, police background checks require every member of the household over the age of 12 to visit a police station and wait weeks if not months for the process to be completed.
But it is broader cultural changes that have pushed the program to the brink.
For one, there simply aren’t as many stay-at-home parents for kids to run to as there once were. In 1976, dual-earner households with at least one child under the age of 16 at home made up just 36 per cent of Canadian families. By 2010, that number had jumped to 68 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
“People are looking to be a connected community in a very different way than we used to,” says Amanda Pick, executive director of the Missing Children Society of Canada. “The traditional model of being a connected community was the idea of Block Parent where a child can go somewhere safely. But I think that technology has moved us in a different direction where people go to social media and other technology platforms to be a connected community.”
Many childhood safety groups have created digital tools to keep pace. The Missing Children Society of Canada has launched several tools in recent years, including a project that allows people to donate their social media feeds to the group, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or Pinterest.
“When a child goes missing, we post directly to your news feed,” says Ms. Pick, who calls it “milk carton 2.0.”
Other technologies, from cellphones to GPS devices to home security systems, provide a much more robust sense of security for many parents. Earlier this year, Heather Hamilton, a mom blogger from Richmond Hill, Ont., installed a home monitoring system that sends an alert to her phone when her front door opens so that she knows her oldest son, who is nine, is safely back from school.
“Our camera is pointed right at the front door, so I can actually make sure it’s him, make sure he’s alone, he can give me a wave,” Ms. Hamilton says.
Block Parent, which has just two part-time employees at its head office in Barrie, Ont., is working on developing a smartphone application, although the organization has yet to figure out what it might look like or how it might function. “We have no idea about that kind of thing,” Ms. Patterson says. “We’re just mothers and grandmothers that sit on this board.”
The program is still doing relatively well in several pockets of the country, particularly Alberta and Quebec, Ms. Patterson says. But it has been extinguished in many regions of Canada, including Ottawa, Toronto, Prince Edward Island and large swaths of British Columbia due to a lack of volunteers and concern over security.
Toronto Police Service pulled their support of Block Parent in 2003. “The service believed the program was no longer sustainable in our community,” police spokeswoman Sarah Diamond says.
The RCMP in B.C. doesn’t support the program any more, either.
This is no longer a world where neighbours can rely on neighbours to keep a watch over every kid on the street, says Mr. Baird of Street Smart Kidz. “I’m nostalgic for that way of life, but I realize that it’s gone,” he says.
The first thing on Street Smart Kidz’s list of what kids should do when they feel they’re in trouble?
“Use your phone,” Mr. Baird says.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said it has two full-time employees in Barrie, Ont. In fact, it has two part-time employees there.