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When adults and children don't mix

Jim Gouvellis, Sun Herald, February 9, 2006

My wife had a dentist appointment in Punta Gorda recently and couldn't find anyone to watch my son, Cooper, for the hour or so she would be in the dentist's chair.

I volunteered to help and decided that Gilchrist Park would be a great place to spend time with the little guy.

Coop loves playgrounds and I love to watch him go down the slides and learn to climb new things. As we played, I noticed a nervous little man sitting in the kiddie park all by himself. He wasn't there with any children, he was just sitting on the bench with a nervous little smile, staring at the kids playing.

The next thing I knew a Punta Gorda police car pulled into the parking lot and out walked officer Melissa Reynolds, who began questioning the man. Soon after, a couple of detectives from the department joined her.

What I saw impressed me. You could tell they were intent on getting the man to leave the park, but since there was no law prohibiting adults not accompanied by children to be in the park, they had to resort to negotiation and diplomacy.

And that's exactly what they used. They told the man that someone had called the department to report a suspicious person and that his presence was making some of the parents uncomfortable. They even took the man's photo to keep on file.

After about 10 minutes of conversation, the officers left the scene and the man hopped on his bicycle and rode away.

I have seen police officers roust people from locations before and there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to do it. The Punta Gorda folks definitely did it the right way. They treated the man with respect, and in the end, he left on his own.

But the incident did get me wondering about why we don't have a policy or even a law that says adults without children should not be allowed in a children's park.

I asked Punta Gorda Maj. Butch Arenal if the city had such a rule.

"No, we don't. I guess the city could enact a law that prohibited it, but I'm not sure if it would be constitutional," he said.

I did find such a law in New York City. In fact, a woman was arrested there last year for being in a children's park without an accompanying child.

Maj. Arenal said his colleagues on the force regularly patrol the area around the children's park and definitely keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.

In a park the size of Gilchrist that definitely has room for adults to find a place to sit and enjoy the day without being in the playground area, I wouldn't mind a law or a policy stating that if you don't have a kid, get out of the playground.

Back in the day, you might like to enjoy a sunny day by sitting in the park and watching the kids play, remembering the days when you were a child.

Well, this isn't Norman Rockwell's century anymore. Gaze at the children today and you just might get a visit from the police.

How sad for us all.

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