In Calgary last month 15-year-old B.C. runaway Patrick Camilli was found bludgeoned to death with a hammer. In Toronto the body of nineyear-old Sharin’ Keenan was discovered in a rooming house refrigerator in February after she was strangled and raped. And in British Columbia’s Lower
Mainland police have finally called off the search for 10-year-old Joanne Pederson, who was last seen talking to a man outside a Sardis, B.C., country store. These and other recent brutal crimes and disappearances have caused alarmed citizens to mobilize in communities across Canada and the United States. The aim is to help children to defend themselves against would-be assailants and to cope rationally with such dangerous situations as being lost.
The counterattack on molesters begins with the idea that a knowledgeable child is a safer child. Families have realized that the old rule of “Don’t talk to strangers” is not enough to avert a tragedy. Not surprisingly, the leader in crime prevention programs for children is New York City. The city’s pioneering Safety and Fitness Exchange (SAFE) is designed for children from 18 months to 18 years of age. In a series of 24 sessions participants are given assertiveness training as well as tips on how to raise a fuss when approached by an adult they fear may harm them. In Canada community groups like Block Parents have intensified contacts with police officers to determine how to “street-proof” youngsters. Parents who want to arm children with a sense of fight, as well as flight, are sending children as young as five to oriental-style martial arts classes. In another attempt to make children self-sufficient, Vancouver Island schoolteacher Colleen Politano is teaching wilderness survival skills to fiveand six-year-olds, including those in her Sooke, B.C., kindergarten class. Politano, who has just received a $5,500 grant from the Canadian Teachers’ Federation to expand the program, which she started in 1978, takes pupils into the bush and teaches them such things as how to keep warm by covering themselves with leaves and branches. In all the programs, however, the aim is the same. Says Politano: “Kids meet up with a lot of threatening situations. They need to be able to think and solve problems.”
Children’s ability to make a clear judgment about their own safety is most impaired by the problem of sexual abuse. “Seventy-five per cent of the victims know their abusers,” explains David Finkelhor, assistant director of the University of New Hampshire’s Family Violence Research Center and author of Sexually Victimized Children. “A third are abused by their parents,” he says. And, according to a study by Finkelhor, one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually molested before the age of 18.
Green Thumb Theatre For Young People, in Vancouver, together with a Vancouver parents’ group called TRACY (Taking Responsible Action for Children and Youth), has initiated the most novel method of informing children that they do not need to accept sexual bullying by friends or family members: since last spring the troupe has presented a federally funded production on sexual abuse throughout the Vancouver public school system. Children are encouraged to recognize and voice “yes” and “no” responses to various skits illustrating both normal family affection and abnormal abuse.
In one scene a lecherous man places his hand on the buttocks of an actress playing a young girl. “Tell him no!” the children in the audience shout, and “She’s getting the ‘no’ feeling!” By the end of the play children are singing such lyrics as My body's nobody's body but mine/You run your own body, let me run mine. They are also taught three basic rules, one of which is: if I go with this person, will someone I know and trust know where I am? The presentation comes at the end of a series of meetings conducted among members of Green Thumb, teachers and parents (who must sign a permission slip for their children to view the show). Professionals and children alike considered the play a success.
The Actors’ Workshop in Winnipeg is trying to launch a spin-off of the Green Thumb program, while another play will be making the rounds of schools in Toronto, starting next month. Entitled Mission from YDOB (body spelled backward), the Toronto play stresses the “range of touch,” says project director Catherine Stewart, and will be followed by discussions with parents and teachers.
In educating children about the vast range of threats that await them, parents may, at the same time, run the risk of traumatizing them. The key, according to specialists, is to balance negative situations with positive ones. “We very specifically ensure that there is music and humor to make sure children don’t get scared off adults or touch,” says Stewart. “We have always told children to trust their feelings.”
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