I think that sign came from England. Here in the States, we have the similar sign but in picture form—a lone adult with a circle around him and a slash through his chest, or something similar. It’s meaning is clear. Do not enter this park unless you have a child with you!
Are the authorities who placed these signs worried that adults cannot properly operate playground equipment without the expert help of a pre-teen? Sort of like how many parents rely on their kids to reboot their computers for them?
No, obviously not. The signs are put there because of the sincere belief that any unaccompanied adult who is in the area of children might be a child molester.
Yes! A child molester!
And—here’s where I throw in the twist—the authorities are right! They have made a statement that is logically true. Unaccompanied adults might be child molesters!
They also might be aliens from Mars disguised as humans. They might be anything, they even might not be child molesters.
The only reason to ban unaccompanied adults is if you have estimated the probability that these folks are evil is high. Is it? Are the authorities banning the right people?
For years, I have figured that most child abuse occurs at the hands of people known to the children. That is, parents, babysitters, aunts and uncles, trusted family friends and so forth. Just the sort of people who will legitimately accompany the children to the playgrounds. But I was too lazy to look up the statistics, nor did I know where to start. Thankfully, Mary Jackson over at PajamasMedia.com did it for me.
Jackson found the government report Child Maltreatment, which investigates the matter in all its depressing detail. Chapter 5 contains the statistics, summed up in this picture:
Much as I hate pie charts, we can at least read this one. It says what we might have figured: Parents account for 80% of abuse cases. Other trusted adults make up another 13% or so. The key number is that only 4% of cases are “Other”, those unaccompanied adults lurking in parks. Incidentally, “57.8 percent of the perpetrators were women”, which probably is not the ratio you expected.
If you want to be sarcastic (and I do), you can say the authorities have done the exact opposite of what they should do if their sole interest was in protecting the kids. Since, the vast majority of kids who will be abused will be so abused by the very people bringing them into the park, the authorities should not allow any person known to the child to enter the playground, and they instead should grab strangers off the street to make sure they don’t break their neck on the monkey bars (if they still have those dangerous, life-threatening devices, and if they are still called by that vaguely politically incorrect name).
Of course, protecting kids was not the sole interest the authorities had in mind when they created their rule. Mollifying paranoid parents also figured highly. The fact that some people just like to be around kids—even stating that sounds creepy to our modern ears—is nothing next to the fear of the worst that can happen.
Don’t get me wrong. My idea of appropriate punishment for people who do abuse kids runs along medieval lines; at the very least in my scheme, convicted molesters would never again see the light of day.
But wrong or misapplied protection rules give a false sense of security. You figure to yourself, ‘Well, I’ve banned this or that. Now I don’t have to worry.” If you’re banning the wrong thing, then you are doing double the harm. You’re missing the real threat and letting your guard down at the same time. For example, to get through the gate of airport security requires at least two people checking to see if you have a ticket in your name. This is silly because any hijacker need merely buy a ticket—just as those on 9/11 did. Checking a ticket buys you nothing but false security (and it unnecessarily increases costs and creates delays).
It’s the case, here, too. If a stranger is intent on, say, abducting a child, a sign banning him from doing so is not going to stop him. But since that sign is there, the adults watching the kids might be a little less careful since they have figured no evil person will bypass the sacrosanct placard. The only thing the warning will do is stop kindly old ladies from sitting peacefully, enjoying the sounds of kids at play.
Caveats: in the government report, they do not break down the relationship of the child by type of abuse. The largest form of abuse (61%) is neglect; just under 8% is sexual abuse. In 2005, there were about 67,000 cases of sexual abuse. According to the US Census, about 80.4 million people are 19 or younger; 60.2 million 14 or younger. This makes the rate of sexual abuse around 8 kids under 20 in every 10,000; or about 0.08%: or about 1 kids under 15 in every 1,000, which is 0.1%,. Thankfully, a very small number. If the relationship breakdowns in Chapter 5 also hold for sexual abuse, then sexual abuse by strangers occurred at a rate around 3 kids under 20 out of every 100,000, or 0.003%: or 4 kids under 15 out of every 100,000, or 0.0004%. In other words, the signs and laws banning unaccompanied adults at best are doing very, very little.