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Men in tough spot with kids

Fear of sexual predators, who are usually male, raises suspicions

Cristina Rouvalis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 12, 2008

In a society where pedophiles are outed and shamed as part of prime-time  entertainment, it has come to this: Tony Taylor, a Pittsburgh father,  says he wouldn't come to the aid of a crying child lost in the mall.

"For a guy to think he can walk up and say, 'Can I help you, kid?' he obviously does not watch the news," said Mr. Taylor, a retired military officer who lives in Turtle Creek. "Being a human being, I would call the shopkeeper. But I wouldn't approach the kid myself."

It can be tough being a man seen around children these days, Mr. Taylor  and other men's rights leaders would argue. Gotcha shows such as "To  Catch a Predator'' and front-page stories about pedophiles have fueled  such a fervor that just being around a child can raise unfounded  suspicions. The distrust can surface anywhere, they said, from airplane  seats to billboard campaigns to random encounters with a child.

Virginia, for example, launched a sexual abuse prevention campaign that  used billboard ads featuring a man's hand intertwined with a child's  hand with a tagline, "It doesn't feel right when I see them together."  The campaign enraged many men.

"I realize there are bad people in this world," said Mr. Taylor, a  leader in the Dads Custody Support Group of Pittsburgh. "But the media can convince people that every Arabic guy in a beard is a terrorist and every little black boy will steal your purse and every guy with a kid looks kind of fishy. You might want to call 9-1-1 just to be sure. You never know."

Rebecca K. Odor, director of sexual and domestic violence prevention for  the Virginia Department of Health, agreed 

"most men are not perpetrators. But the problem is most sexual abuse perpetrators are men. It puts everyone in a hard place. It is especially hard for men," she said, adding she is in talks with men to tweak the message.

Ms. Odor said the campaign was designed to tell people to trust their  gut instincts about sexual abuse and noted it resonated with adults who  had been abused as children. 

"They said the only way it could have been stopped is if another adult paid attention to the warning signs."

Some men complain pedophile suspicions are so widespread that it even  affects the seating of unaccompanied minors at some airlines such as  British Airways, which makes an attempt to put unaccompanied minors in a  seat next to a woman. 

(US Airways and Southwest Airlines, however, do not have such a policy.)

"It's gotten to the point if you send a kid on a plane alone, they won't put him next to a man," said Marc Rudov, a Pittsburgh native and California TV and radio personality who is the author of the Web site .

"This man is allowed to get married and have children. On the airplane, he is a presumed pedophile. When you teach your children you can't sit next to him because he might hurt you, what do you think girls are going to think about men? What do you think a boy is going to think about himself and his father?"

Mr. Rudov believes it has become difficult for men to innocently be  around young children without raising suspicions. But others say that  doesn't ring true. They point to all the dads coaching soccer or going  on Indian Princess father-daughter campouts.

"Men are spending a lot more time with children than when I was a kid," said Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes against Children Research Center, which has found 95 percent of sexual abuse perpetrators are male.

"I think it would be hard to argue that sex abuse hysteria has driven [men] away. But there are challenges. I think men are more conscious of physical interaction around kids and time alone. It has made it harder to be a child care worker and male."

Day care workers are overwhelmingly female -- so much so that Patrick  Webster said that it was a hindrance when he opened a preschool program  in Pine in the 1990s.

Back then, some people were thrilled to see a positive male role model  in the business, but it made other people nervous, said Mr. Webster, now  administrative director of Shady Lane School, an early care and  education program in Point Breeze.

"There was a bit of hesitation on some people's part. There were people who would not enroll their children in the program."

Now he believes that people tend to be less uneasy about a male day care  worker or preschool teacher. 

"It is now less of a problem. We are making some strides in finding professional-level caregivers who are male."

Male teachers also are a rarity in elementary schools, dropping from an  all-time high of 18 percent in 1981 to 9 percent in 2004, according to  the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union.  The NEA attributes economic reasons and gender stereotypes for the  decline -- not social hysteria.

The administrators at Roosevelt Elementary School in Carrick have worked  hard to find good male teachers, and the parents often request them,  said Principal Vincent Lewandowski. All things equal between two  qualified candidates, Mr. Lewandowski tries to hire men to bring  diversity to the mostly female teaching staff.

Still, with all the headlines about pedophiles, he said he and his male  staff are extra vigilant about not doing anything that could even be  construed as inappropriate.

"It is a very touchy subject," Mr. Lewandowski said. "In the past 10 years, as society has changed and become more aware of pedophilia, education has changed, too. "As males, we are hypersensitive about it. I never put myself in a  situation where I could be construed as compromising myself. When a child comes into my office, and I am alone with him, my door is open."

Male youth ministers also have to concern themselves with outside  appearances.

"I make it a point to never be with kids in a one-on-one way that other people don't know about it," said Todd Tracy, director of youth and young adult ministries at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon. "It is a concern of mine. It is always in the back of my mind. But it is not a big issue."

Roy Peter Clark, a writing coach, believes that heightened fears over  men with small children is a type of profiling, and it's the reason he  agonized when he heard a child asking for help in the men's room of his  church in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Are you OK in there?" asked Mr. Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg-based school for journalism. "Mister, I can't pull up my zipper," the little boy called out. "Can you help me?"

Those 11 words stopped him in his tracks.

"I'm in a Catholic church, in the middle of the greatest sexual scandal in the history of Catholicism, in the men's room, with a boy who wants me to help him with his zipper," Mr. Clark wrote in a recent column. 

(He said he waited two years to write about the topic because he did not want to stigmatize the little boy or his family.)

Later, he asked his friends what they would do if they were faced with  such an excruciating predicament. They recommended getting the parents,  making an announcement from the pulpit or -- his favorite -- go get a  woman.

"In other words, men cannot be trusted with little boys," he wrote in his column.

As he agonized over what to do, an old man walked into the bathroom. In  a loud voice, Mr. Clark asked the little boy what he wanted to do and  repeated it back so the old man would hear before helping the boy with  his zipper, an act of male solidarity.

Mr. Clark, the father of three grown daughters, thinks there is more  suspicion around men today than decades ago.

"But it doesn't upset me. It reinforces my personal determination to help children when I can," he said. "I know other men, good men, may be forced to stand aside. Out of fear or suspicion or worse, there will be fewer and fewer Good Samaritans in an era when Good Samaritans are sometimes prosecuted for their actions."

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