Chester, this is the last time I’m gonna tell you…

1 09 2011

There’s a very awkward, complicated problem that comes with being an adult who works with children. I bet a lot of you can already guess what it is.

My parents tell stories about growing up in the 1950s and 60s. A nice guy in their neighborhood who used to take them to the World’s Fair for the afternoon, helping adult neighbors who didn’t have children around their houses, that kind of thing. No one batted an eye.

There was the one creepy guy on the corner, who all the children were instructed to run past, but other than that, sexual abuse wasn’t really a thought. Fortunately it worked out all right for them. The well-meaning adults in their lives were just that. But of course, as awareness of sexual abuse rose, it became apparent that a lot of people aren’t to be trusted with children, and they are not always the people you think.

We’ve kind of swung the other way in our culture. From, “You want to take my kid to the movies? And  you’re buying? Hell yeah, do whatever he says, kiddo” to “Don’t post photos of my child on Facebook, the pedophiles are in the computer and they’re tracking her!”

It’s worst for men…what kind of guy wants to work with kids? I mean, there must be something going on. That’s so often the first reaction, and it’s repulsive. Plenty of men want to work with kids for the same reasons women want to work with kids–kids are funny, they’re cute, and it’s nice to think that you can make an impact on someone who is still impressionable.

But this is still a part of the job. It starts at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) When I was hired at Anonymous Agency, I was required to undergo a background check and get fingerprinted. Curiously, I did not have to do this when I was an intern. At my previous job, at a neighborhood youth center, we required this of interns and all employees. Good thing, because we did once have a convicted sex offender come in looking for work.

Dude, your picture is on the internet. Are you kidding me?

Given that scare, I’m on board with the policy. This is what we do. They’re also not just looking for sex offenders, there are a lot of restrictions, including a history with child protective services, that could make on ineligible for certain jobs with kids.

Then there are the discussions in staff meetings. Is it ever OK to be in a room alone with a child? What about during a home visit? Do you go into a child’s bedroom? What if a teenager is home alone when you show up for a visit?

The assumption isn’t that anyone we work with would want to hurt a child. It’s that you want to avoid the appearance of anything that could possibly be “misinterpreted.” And that’s all anyone will say. Because people get uncomfortable.

I’ve had it happen, on numerous occasions, that I’ve gone to a home and found a teenager there alone. The kids are usually polite and welcoming. There’s no hard and fast rule, so we’re always told to use our judgment. Recently, I went to an apartment and found a sixteen year old girl at home with her twelve year old sister. I stood in the doorway, we talked for a few minutes, and I left a note for their mother. Last Christmas, I tried to do a home visit and found a sixteen year old boy, who seemed to be permanently leering, at home alone. In his eagerness to answer the door, he neglected to put on a shirt. When he asked if I wanted to come in, despite his mother being out, I politely declined.

Actually, I shouted, “NO I DO NOT WISH TO COME IN, WITNESSES, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” and put an SJ-shaped hole in the front door.

That neighborhood youth center that I started at was actually a Catholic organization, which meant that they had to meet certain requirements set by the diocese. One of these was a rather strange day long training that involved videos and discussion. (I won’t say the name here, but I’m sure some people are familiar with it.)

It was well-intended, I thought, given the Catholic church’s history ongoing bullshit on the subject. (I came to feel that they were primarily trying to cover the church’s ass, and to point out that just because there was an epidemic of child abuse and a cover-up of epic proportions within the church, doesn’t mean that all pedophiles are priests. Because that’s what’s important.) The videos were designed to teach us how to spot sexual abuse, and how to avoid doing anything that might lead to false accusations.

Some of the suggestions made sense. Avoid being alone with one child. Meet with kids in rooms with windows.

Some of them seemed to have been written by someone who had never met a child.

“Don’t touch the kids.”
OK, when I have to pull a splinter out of a crying five year old’s foot, I’ll just pat her on the head with a roll of paper towels. And I’ll tell them all that I’m made of hot lava.

“Don’t help the kids change.”
If I could avoid it, I would, but we had 1.) low-functioning autistic children who were not yet toilet trained and 2.) a pre-k program. Parents, I know those little belts, suspenders, and overalls are just adorable, but if you don’t want your child’s pre-k teacher having anything to do with their pants, stick to elastic waistbands.

“Don’t have favorites.”
Well, I can’t help it if some kids are way more awesome than others.

Then there was the “spotting child abusers,” which supposedly contained stories from actual victims of sexual abuse. Interestingly enough, they hadn’t managed to find one child who had been abused by a priest. Strange, because I know many who are willing to say quite a lot about the church. They went through all the usual hullabaloo, informing us that child molesters are not “strangers,” lurking in the bushes, waiting to snatch your children. They’re people you know, people you trust. (Like…priests?)

They then showed a video of a concerned mother watching a greasy-haired man, dressed like a longshoreman, approaching her children in a playground, next to some shrubbery.

I really recommend these videos for home entertainment.

I’m glad that we’re vigilant about child abuse, of course. But it makes me sad to see what a part of my job it’s become. Not assessing for abuse in families I work with, but making sure no one thinks that my coworkers or I am up to no good.

Paranoia doesn’t help anyone. It leads to panic, and good people, men especially, being afraid to work with children because they don’t want the suspicion and hassle. And that doesn’t make anyone safer.