September 6, 2007
JEFF ZASLOW, Wall Street Journal
These days, if Rian Romoli accidentally bumps into a child, he quickly raises his hands above his shoulders. "I don't want to give even the slightest indication that any inadvertent touching occurred," says Mr. Romoli, an economist in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif.
Ted Wallis, a doctor in Austin, Texas, recently came upon a lost child in tears in a mall. His first instinct was to help, but he feared people might consider him a predator. He walked away. "Being male," he explains, "I am guilty until proven innocent."
In San Diego, retiree Ralph Castro says he won't allow himself to be alone with a child -- even in an elevator.
Last month, I wrote about how our culture teaches children to fear men1. Hundreds of men responded, many lamenting that they've now become fearful of children. They said they avert their eyes when kids are around, or think twice before holding even their own children's hands in public.
Men, do you find yourself limiting contact with kids for fear that you'll be accused of being a predator? Is there anything that can be done about this societal problem? Share your thoughts3.
Frank McEnulty, a builder in Long Beach, Calif., was once a Boy Scout scoutmaster. "Today, I wouldn't do that job for anything," he says. "All it takes is for one kid to get ticked off at you for something and tell his parents you were acting weird on the campout."
It's true that men are far more likely than women to be sexual predators. But our society, while declining to profile by race or nationality when it comes to crime and terrorism, has become nonchalant about profiling men. Child advocates are advising parents never to hire male babysitters. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers.
Child-welfare groups say these precautions minimize risks. But men's rights activists argue that our societal focus on "bad guys" has led to an overconfidence in women. (Children who die of physical abuse are more often victims of female perpetrators, usually mothers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
Though groups that cater to the young are working harder to identify predators, they also ask that risks be kept in perspective. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America does criminal background checks on each of its 250,000 volunteers, and has social workers assess them. Since 1990, the group says, it has had fewer than 10 abuse allegations per year. More than 98% of the alleged abusers were male.
"If we wanted to make sure we never had a problem, one approach would be to just become Big Sisters -- to say we won't serve boys," says Mack Koonce, the group's chief operating officer. But, of course, that would deny hundreds of thousands of boys contact with male mentors.
The Boy Scouts of America now has elaborate rules to prevent both abuse and false accusations. There are 1.2 million Scout leaders, and the organization kicks out about 175 of them a year over abuse allegations or for violating policies.
These policies can be intricate. For instance, four adult leaders are needed for each outing. If a sick child must go home, two adults drive him and two stay with the others, so no adult is ever alone with a Scout. "It's protection for the adults, as well as the children," says a Scouts spokesman.
The result of all this hyper-carefulness, however, is that men often feel like untouchables. In Cochranville, Pa., Ray Simpson, a bus driver, says that he used to have 30 kids stop at his house on Halloween. But after his divorce, with people knowing he was a man living alone, he had zero visitors. "I felt like crying at the end of the evening," he says.
At Houston Intercontinental Airport, businessman Mitch Reifel was having a meal with his 5-year-old daughter when a policeman showed up to question him. A passerby had reported his interactions with the child seemed "suspicious."
In Skokie, Ill., Steve Frederick says the director of his son's day-care center called him in to reprimand him for "inappropriately touching the children." "I was shocked," he says. "Whatever did she mean?" She was referring to him reading stories with his son and other kids on his lap. A parent had panicked when her child mentioned sitting on a man's lap.
"Good parenting and good education demand that we let children take risks," says Mr. Frederick, a career coach. "We install playground equipment, putting them at risk of falls and broken bones. Why? We want them to challenge themselves and develop muscles and confidence.
"Likewise, while we don't want sexual predators to harm our kids, we do want our kids to develop healthy relationships with adults, both men and women. Instilling a fear of men is a profound disservice to everyone."
September 6, 2007