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Protecting children from the monsters among us

You could argue that it is our citizen's duty to bear witness to the horrific details of how Tori Stafford, the winsome eight-year-old Woodstock, Ont., girl with the sunny smile, met her death in April 2009, after she was abducted from outside her school, sexually assaulted, and then shoved in a green garbage bag and hammered to death.

You could say that in doing so, we stand in solidarity with her parents, her brother, her grandmother, and an entire community who carry a collective survivors' guilt about the loss of an innocent. They are serving their own brutal life sentence, so a few weeks of this horror is not too much for us to invest.

But for all the media attention focused on the London, Ont., trial of Michael Rafferty, the man accused in the child's rape and murder, and what some media outlets have called the "eagerly anticipated" graphic testimony of his former girlfriend, druggie Terri-Lynne McClintic, who confessed to the actual killing and is serving a life sentence, I personally know almost no one who is willingly allowing those hideous images into their heads.

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Yet because the trial tops almost every media's most-read list, clearly many readers are absorbing the gruesome details. Perhaps those with young children glance, sickened, only at the headlines – Accused In Stafford Murder Trial Wanted 'Younger Person'– and then hold their little ones tighter.

We wonder how there can be such monsters among us, but we know the answer. There just are, so what do we do to protect the vulnerable?

Much has been made of the fact that the day of her death was the first time, owing partly to confusion, Tori had been about to walk home alone. The detail that catapulted me back in time as a parent was that it took less than three minutes for Tori – the only one alone in a sea of children leaving with their parents, siblings or friends – to be targeted, persuaded to accompany a friendly Ms. McClintic, chatting about dogs, and then pushed into a car and subjected to her fate.

This could have been any of our children, who under all sorts of unforeseen circumstances end up alone when they shouldn't be. (My little daughter was once locked out of a summer day camp and left alone in a playground.)

I remember long ago a friend telling me she "just knew" her little boy would fall for the puppy-dog line, no matter how they tried to street-proof him.

Every parent fears a stranger abduction, although they are so rare, that even in a big city like Toronto, where I live, we remember every name. Alison Parrott, 11, abducted by a man who targeted her in 1986. Holly Jones, 10, abducted while walking home from a friend's by a neighbour in 2003. Of course we remember their names because they either disappeared seemingly forever, like nine-year-old Cedrika Provencher of Trois-Rivières, who left behind her bike and helmet in 2007, or they died demonstrably horrible deaths. Almost no children survive if someone with evil intent has decided they are the one.

When both my kids were under the age of 8, I called the police and asked them, when was it safe in our trendy, family-friendly downtown neighbourhood to let them walk to and from school alone? The answer surprised even a paranoid mom like me: "Never."

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The officer who took my call was being precise. When I said "alone" he meant alone as in singly, without even a friend. He suggested that any young child under 11 or 12 should never be on any streets alone. Period. As they reach the age of 12, they are stronger physically and capable of much more discernment about their own safety.

The fact that even theoretically no young child is safe just doesn't conform with our unrealistic yearning for safe, bustling neighbourhoods filled with adults who personally know your children by name, and where gaggles of little kids roam free.

I still get teased by my grown children about the couple of years I made them ride a school bus – as French-immersion students they were entitled to – when the school was less than 10 minutes away.

And sometimes I made fun of myself – wondering why I had turned our benign neighbourhood into a version of Martin Scorsese's mean streets, so much so that when I did allow our then seven-year-old son to run – what seven-year-old walks? – a block and a half to the corner variety store, his first words, enshrined in family history, when he rushed back home were: "I made it back alive!"

Unlike the family of Tori Stafford, we get to fondly recall that moment, and shake our heads at the absurdities of modern parenting. We were lucky.

Life is hideously unfair and all families need luck. This same week, across the ocean in Belgium, families with exceptionally bad luck are in agony after a bus load of their children, on a ski trip, crashed in Switzerland, killing 22 of them. But you have to let your children live and breathe and have adventures.

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Still, part of letting them go is impressing upon them that in many cases, there is safety in numbers, in being in a group, or with a friend, but simply not all by themselves.

I wish so much that Tori had been luckier that April day. This trial is about justice for her. But it's also a reminder about the vulnerability of any young child alone in our midst.

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