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Block Parent marker vanishing from homes across the country Add to ...

The iconic red and white Block Parent sign is gradually being removed from windows of homes across Canada.

Stalwart organizers insist the program that was first introduced to this country 40 years ago after the abduction and murder of a young boy in London, Ont., will ultimately survive.

There remains, they say, a committed core of volunteers who will continue to advertise their willingness to open their doors to strangers - particularly children - in distress.

But the number of Block Parent households is dwindling.

In 1995, there were 253,000 participating homes in about 1,000 communities across Canada. By 2007, there were just 45,000 Block Parent homes in 379 communities.

The program no longer operates in British Columbia. It was cancelled in Toronto in 2003 for lack of interest. And, this year, the police in Ottawa pulled the plug because there was no one left in the city who was willing to act as the organizer. The 79 remaining Ottawa Block Parents were asked to turn in their signs.

That blow came just two years after the leaders of the Canadian program unveiled a plan for renewal.

"There were some spots that were identified that we needed to tighten up. One of them was our sign. We now have a serial number on it, we have an expiry date on it and each province is designated with their own colour and their own provincial designation," Linda Patterson, the president of the Block Parent Program of Canada, said in a recent interview.

"So we've got much better control of our signs and we know where they are."

The possibility that the signs could be copied by people of nefarious intent was one of the factors that prompted the RCMP in British Columbia to say the program had to end.

"We lost a whole province. That had a huge impact. We have tried every single thing under the sun to get that province back," Ms. Patterson said.

Studies have shown the program poses no risks, she said. All volunteers are regularly screened by police. But the new restrictions on signs and the increased requirements for police screening have actually contributed to the programs decline.

People who have been Block Parents for 20 or 30 years decided it wasn't worth the bother to continue to volunteer. They just turned in their signs and didn't get replacements.

When the program was first introduced in Canadian schools, children ran home begging their mothers, and less often their fathers, to participate. It was a status symbol to belong to a Block Parent family.

That changed as fewer and fewer moms stayed home to take care of their own kids, which meant they weren't home to rescue the children belonging to neighbours.

"There are more mothers at work. There are more single-parent families in which the parent has to work. That's why our numbers have been going down," Ms. Patterson said.

In fact, she said, a person does not need to be a stay-at-home parent to be a Block Parent. "To be a Block Parent does not mean you need to have that sign in the window 24-7," said Ms. Patterson. An hour a day, a half hour a day, might be the most important time that somebody walks by and needs your help."

Marg Rooke, the chair of Block Parent Ontario, and her husband have been Block Parents since 1984. "It has been difficult," Ms. Rooke said of efforts to sustain the program. "I think a lot of people feel they don't have time to be a Block Parent volunteer."

Though the violent-crime rate has been falling since the early '90s, Ms. Rooke said people have become increasingly fearful about letting strangers into their homes. "I think a lot of people think 'I don't want to get involved. We don't know our neighbours. We don't trust people as much as we used to perhaps.' "

Block Parents, she added, are not required to open their doors to people seeking their assistance. Their only responsibility is to call for help.

Ms. Patterson laments the shrinking presence of Block Parents.

Although she would like to have two of the signs displayed on every block of every community in Canada, "it only takes one Block Parent to save somebody if something happens on their street. So, if you only have five Block Parents in your community or 10 Block Parents in your community, that's better than none."

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