Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why is Keeping Children Safe Up For Debate?

by Dr. Michelle Golland

Why are we still debating whether children under the age of 13 should be allowed to walk alone to and from school? Is keeping our children safe really up for debate?

As a clinical psychologist, I often counsel victims of violent crime. Given the risks that children face in our time, it is naive and simply irresponsible to argue, as Lenore Skenazy does in her book Free-Range Kids, that because we were all raised in the 1970s in a "free" way, our kids should be as well.

In the '70s, our generation also didn't believe in sex education for our children and believed that being gay was a choice and should be demonized. We also didn't believe domestic violence was a problem, that the Catholic Church would never put children in harm's way, and seat belts and car seats weren't mandatory. Many things over the last 40 years–through studies, our intelligence, our emotional reactions, and plain mothers' intuition–have simply become obvious at this point in time. One of them is that young children should not be left alone in a public place–whether it is walking home from school or a friend's house, playing in a park, or playing in the front yard unsupervised. Would any of you even question putting your child in a car seat or forcing them to buckle up when you get into a car? Is that too restrictive? Not free enough for your taste?

I believe what is often the motivator for these free-living parents is that by allowing their kids to be independent, it frees up the parents to focus on themselves and also saves them the costs of childcare. The parents are simply choosing their own independence over their children's safety.

I do not agree that depriving our children of the freedom to walk home alone from school quells their sense of independence. Children develop independence in many ways that don't put them at risk. For example, when your kids choose their extracurricular activities–the clothes they wear, how they wear their hair, the decor of their bedroom, or the games the family plays on game night–this, in my opinion, gives your child a strong sense of independence and power at much less risk. The experience of independence is developed across time and in age-appropriate and safe ways. The argument that allowing a 9 year old to ride alone on public transportation promotes independence is ignorant and irresponsible. My 9-year-old son begs me to stay home alone while I take his sister to dance class. I in no way believe that is his cry for independence or that I should even consider it for a minute to promote his independence. He is a 9-year-old boy who wants to stay home and play Wii for as long as he can.

By saying this, I am in no way blaming the mother of Leiby Kletzsky. She is a single mother and these are very difficult issues to deal with. I am sure she would agree that if at all possible she would prefer to have her 8-year-old be with someone on his way to and from school. We can't expect an 8 year old to be able to handle dealing with a stranger, alone on a street, because, again, he is a child. I think we should look to these issue when thinking about giving children the "freedom" Lenore Skenazy is pushing for. Don't you?

You see, it is about maturity and ability to deal with different contingencies in one's environment. Younger children do not have the brain development to deal with issues like adults do. It is that simple. They can be manipulated and lured much easier than adults, which is why they are at greater risk.

It is sad that we live in an at-risk society. However, as we have seen on the news, there are many sex offenders living among us. And we simply cannot afford to place our kids in harm's way under the guise of "letting them live free."

There are two tracks to deal with sexual offenders:

1. Community Information and Protection of Children
This is composed of access to information regarding the location of registered sexual offenders, and includes where they can live within range of schools, libraries and parks. It also includes the enactment of the Amber Alert system and Megan laws.

I believe we need to take this further. We should have national guidelines for the training of our children in schools on how to be safe and protect themselves as much as possible from sexual predators. We need to create ways for our children to get to and from school with adult supervision.
Our schools should be community centers with access to after-care programs for working parents. It is imperative that we as a society deal with the issue of after-school care in a progressive and aggressive manner.

I do not think that it is paranoia to say that we should provide GPS devices for our children. In the case of Elizabeth Olten, the police were able to locate her body because of her cell phone. There are many GPS devices that you can give to your children that would enable the authorities to help locate your child. Devices can be placed in shoes or in backpacks and could be monitored by the Global Positioning Satellite System immediately. As we know, when a child goes missing, time is of the essence. We place a greater emphasis on locating our cars or our cell phones than our kids. Again, it's a risk-reward issue. To me, it's a no-brainer.

2. Sentencing and Civil Commitment of Child Sexual Offenders
We should all be upset at the differing sentencing guidelines for sexual offenders. I believe we need to make sexual crimes against children a federal offense, which would automatically mandate sentencing guidelines that are uniform for all states.

Mandatory federal sentences for child sexual abuse should be similar to Wisconsin's tough sexual offender statutes that include the following: Jessica's Law legislation (created in memory of Jessica Lunsford, who was kidnapped and killed by a sex offender who did not register in Florida) imposes a minimum 25-year sentence for those convicted of first-degree sexual assault of a child. Another measure passed by Wisconsin lawmakers provides judges with the authority to give life sentences to offenders twice convicted of first-degree sexual assault (the previous maximum was 40 years). With the high rate of repeat offending by child sexual predators, it is imperative that sentencing guidelines are used to protect our children from pedophiles.

Kansas has enacted the Sexually Violent Predator Act of 1994, which was passed in response to concerns about recidivism rates among sex offenders. Under the law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, the state can commit individuals who are likely to engage in predatory acts of violence because of a mental abnormality or personality disorder. Few confined sex offenders are ever released. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy has followed the issue since that state passed a civil commitment law in 1990. As of December 2004, the Institute reports that 3,493 people have been held for evaluation as sexually violent predators or committed for treatment, and 427 individuals have been discharged or released. This seems like a good alternative to keep sexual predators off the streets, but it is far more expensive than prison. Civil-commitment legislation was introduced in South Dakota as well, but lawmakers decided to create a no-parole provision for certain repeat sex offenders instead.

Given the clear danger of predatory child sexual abusers, as a nation we must come together and create clear and tough guidelines for repeat child sexual predators. We must educate our children about sexual offenders, and we must wake up to the reality that we can't live as if it is 1970. Sadly, we must wake up and deal with the reality that there are people who look for the window of opportunity to take a child, sexually assault them, and throw them away like garbage. These are real risks in the reality of our time.

We must take our shoes off at the airports, put our children in car seats, and not allow them to be alone in public places or walk home from school alone. Is it really that much of a hassle for us to take these measures? I would not want to be a parent who sits with the pain of having a child taken, assaulted, or even killed and know that I placed my child in danger when it could have been avoided.

11 comments:

Susan said...

This is one of the most crazy and unintelligent posts I've ever read! There is no way on God's green earth that it's mentally safe or even mildly sane to not let children under 13 be outside alone! Really?!! Where do you live lady? In the middle of gang banger block? Thank God that I live in a sane neighbor hood filled with the laughter of children playing outside ALONE, and a sane school district that encourages walking and biking to class and a community that promotes outdoor activity and physical health. You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to capitalize off of this sensationalized BS.

Pat Brown said...

I disagree, Susan, and I think Michelle has a good point that the world has become rather dangerous for young children. I never let my young kids walk alone through the neighborhood. When my eight-year-old boys asked if they walk to the summer camp alone, I told them no. When they asked why, I asked back, "Can your Mom beat you up?" They nodded yes and I told them when I can't beat them up any more, they can walk to the park. They got the message. They realized they could not protect themselves against bigger people and therefore should not be wandering around by themselves.

I have heard the argument about children being stifled and how they won't be able to think for themselves or they will cling to Mommy's skirts forever and this is rubbish. I homeschooled three children all the way to college age and they didn't date until they were adults. They didn't go to unattended teen parties or hang at the mall. They didn't drive until they were 17 and not alone until 18. Today, I have three very independent, brave adult children, two in law enforcement and one joining the army to go into intelligence. All three have traveled out of the country to Mexico, India, China, Portugal, Jamaica, etc. One lived a year each in India and Mexico for school. My daughter, who didn't get her driver's license until 18 was always the lead car in a police chase when she was a patrol officer. She also worked as an ambulance driver and an EMT. They are a strong adults, very secure and adventurous, and no drugs or babies among them. Protecting your children doesn't mean stifling them; it means keeping them safe so they can grow up to be healthy and happy adults.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Pat, I didn't take the article as stifling children. I think this would lead to another argument about parenting. Some parents will take protection to a level where kids don't know what to do socially. Like anything you do moderation is the key.

Anonymous said...

Children need protection provided by adults, combined with age appropriate opportunities to exercise independence, as Dr. Golland suggests. I grew up in a rural community, and played outside all day with my friends. Still a man exposed himself to my sister, two boys beat me up and two men tried to take us in a car. In the city the numbers of these predators increase exponentially. I don't think kids need those kinds of experiences to become independent, as Pat shared.

KLGG said...

Excellent article! Keeping our children safe is worth the extra care we have to take today. I grew up in the 50's and even then we had pedophiles stealing children and sitting in cars by playgrounds watching us. It's always been dangerous, we're just more aware of it now. My kids grew up in the 70's and I was considered over protective! I am now very watchful with my grandchildren. There is nothing wrong with being smart about safety. In so doing we teach children how to be cautious and wise. It didn't hurt me that my mother taught me to avoid adults hanging around schools and playgrounds. (She told me to run!) I liked knowing the truth as a child, it was empowering.

It is time to deal with an appropriate legal solution to these unhealthy individuals who want to harm and kill. Pedophilia is not curable. What are we, as a society, going to do about this problem? Strict Federal guidelines are a good answer.

Give this article to Vinnie Politan (HLN) so he can read it to America!

Anonymous said...

When I was raising my two children as a single parent I was put in the horrible position of cutting out after school childcare for my then 9 year old daughter because her father successfully had the child support lowered. I had to teach her how to make wise choices for the two hours she would be at home alone. I felt so much guilt over this, and wish I had better options. We practiced what to do when the phone rang. We had an answering machine that you could hear who was calling as they left a message. My daughter knew that she could only answer for two people, myself and her grandma. I felt that even though answering if any of her aunts and uncles called was safe, it would be less confusing for her to remember only two people and not more. She was also taught to have the cordless phone with her where ever she was in the house. She was also taught to NEVER answer or go near the locked door, even if someone was identifying them as the police. She was instructed to call 911 if that happened because 911 would know for sure if there was an officer at the door. She was also told if someone was there and would not go away to get under my bed and call me. I would then call 911 and go home, as I worked only ten minutes away. Once this did happen. Someone was knocking at the door and she thought they were rattling the door knob. She called me and I left for home immediately. By the time I got there no one was around, the door was secure and my daughter was waiting for me under the bed. I let her know how proud I was of her for doing everything just as we practiced. It was very hard for me to expect this of her at that age, but I only had money for her infant brother to be in day care at that point. That was 20 years ago, and my daughter is grown and on her own. She often tells me she is appreciative of the limits I set for her while growing up.

Pat Brown said...

Anonymous, I have to say I think you did a really good job raising your kids. There are some parents who have less fortunate circumstances and they must take more chances than others with their children's safety simply because there is no other choice; our choices are often relative. But you did as much as you could with your situation and this is very admirable! You have my applause.

Anonymous said...

'keeping kids safe' is not 'up for debate'. wtf!? who in the world would ever suggest, 'hey! let's put kids in harm's way!' i call total abuse of rhetoric, here. the argument is really about *how* to keep our kids safe.

just remember this. if you don't educate your kids from an early age on the things they can do to *keep themselves safer*, they will not know, and the first time they're in a position to have to make the call they'll be 21 and leaving a bar drunk. the outcome you fear most could still happen. it'll just be delayed.

there will always be abusers who will try to lure kids into dangerous situations. there just will. use your head. ok, so you're ms. 'i perfectly protect my kids'. what the he!! will your kids do -- how will they survive -- if you're suddenly killed, or seriously laid up, and completely unable to intervene on their behalf? what would *you* have done? would you have perhaps coped better because your folks had you standing on your own two feet from age 5?

use your flippin' head.

Gaye said...

How is this article not blaming the mother of Leiby Kletzsky?

I'm with Susan on this one.

Parents - know your children! Teach them safety, starting when they are babies in your arms. Not every child matures enough to be left at age 9. But many are. It all boils down to knowing your child's strengths and weaknesses.

Sif said...

This article is a knee-jerk reaction to an over-exposure to the worst of society's ill through having to counsel victims (most victims know their attackers, remember that, it's not the stranger just driving past, it's uncle Fred who visits at Easter...), coupled with a recent news story - a one in a billion story...

Back to the accusations of this article - by sending my 10 and 12 year old sons to the local park (two streets away - they've been going on their own for two years now), I'm not prioritising my own independence and wilfully putting them at risk. We have all sorts of measures in place for them to learn to be safe. They must follow a predetermined route, and be back within a predetermined period of time. They can only go when we are free to go check on them if that time elapses. They don't have mobile that promote a false sense of security in them or us (other local children roam the streets at will because their parents feel safe that they have mobiles to call home if they get into trouble - the mobiles probably make those children more likely to be targeted by older kids wanting to take the mobiles!)...

Perspective is what is needed here. When adults are also being kidnapped, mugged, killed in hit and runs - at what point are parents supposed to let their children (even adult children) have some independence so they can learn some skills of awareness?

Pat Brown said...

As somebody said, it's moderation, folks. Depending on where you live playing outside with a pack of other kids lets them strengthen their imagination. If you don't feel safe, then at the very least give your kids a time for free play. Organizing everything your children do 24/7 is not good for kids.

The main reason we see the world as more dangerous than 40 years ago, is that 40 years ago you didn't hear about a child disappearing or being raped and murdered. Sit down for fifteen minutes. Think about the last time a child disappeared or was killed by a stranger in your town or neighborhood. I live in a city of about 350,000, within driving distance of a metropolis of 2-3 million. In the last 5 years there has been one such case -- and even that one was by a local man who knew the family.

If you want to keep your kids away from danger, you might want to look at the coach of your local peewee or swim team, where you sent your to keep him safe. That's where most of sexual child abuse is done. Men are drawn to jobs that give them regular access to children. Just lately there's been a rash of hockey and football coaches who were abusing the kids they were training.

You think you're being a great parent by keeping your kids isolated from the outside world when in fact you're sending the perv your kid on a platter.

Moderation and use your brains, not the headlines of your local news.