On Nov. 28, 2002, 2-year-old Abigail Rae died by drowning in a village pond in England. Her death is currently stirring debate because the ongoing inquest revealed an explosive fact. A man passing by was afraid to guide the lost child to safety because he feared being labeled "a pervert."
In the article "Day of the dad: paedophilia hysteria leaves men afraid to help," The Telegraph raises a question that applies equally to North America. Have high profile cases of pedophilia created such public hysteria that the average decent human being, especially a man, is now reluctant to approach a child in need?
Consider what happened to Abby. The toddler wandered from her nursery school, Ready Teddy Go, through a door left open. A bricklayer named Clive Peachey drove past her in his truck. At the inquest, he stated, "I kept thinking I should go back. The reason I didn't was because I thought people might think I was trying to abduct her."
Instead, he assured himself that the parents must be "driving around" and would find her.
A few minutes thereafter, Abby fatally fell into an algae-covered pond. Meanwhile, the nursery staff searched. When the mother noticed the staff near her home, she was told they were looking for a "lost dog" but the truth soon emerged. The frantic mother's search ended when she leaped into the pond to fish out what she thought was Abby's shoe.
She stated, "As I grabbed for the shoe, I missed and was shocked to touch what felt like a leg. I pulled the leg upwards." The dead child emerged.
Abby's case may be extreme but it hinges on a question that commonly confronts everyone who interacts with other people's children. Is it possible to touch a child in a non-abusive manner without risking terrible repercussions?
Before moving to this question, however, it is necessary to consider a related issue that arises in almost every discussions of Abby. Is Clive Peachey legally or morally responsible for her death?
For several reasons, I argue that he is not. First and foremost, the responsibility lies with the nursery staff who became her guardians. Abby was in no immediate danger when Peachey saw her and he contacted the police upon later hearing a 'missing child' report.
Arguably, if he had phoned the police immediately, Abby would have been dead long before they arrived. Moreover, by coming forth, Peachey has accepted the damage to his life that comes with the public disgrace of saying "I drove past her."
Important information in judging Peachey is missing. For example, if Peachey has a family, he may have been reluctant to place his reputation or livelihood at risk. He may have balanced possible harm to his own children against helping a stranger's child.
Peachey's fears have precedence on this side of the Atlantic.
Last summer, an Illinois man lost an appeal on his conviction as a sex offender for grabbing the arm of a 14-year-old girl. She had stepped directly in front of his car, causing him to swerve in order to avoid hitting her.
The 28-year-old Fitzroy Barnaby jumped out his car, grabbed her arm and lectured her on how not to get killed. Nothing more occurred. Nevertheless, that one action made him guilty of "the unlawful restraint of a minor," which is a sexual offense in Illinois. Both the jury and judge believed him. Nevertheless, Barnaby went through years of legal proceedings that ended with his name on a sex offender registry, where his photograph and address are publicly available. He must report to authorities. His employment options are severely limited; he cannot live near schools or parks.
Arguably, the law would have punished Barnaby less had he hit the girl or not cared enough to lecture her. Perhaps that's the equation that ran through Peachey's mind.
Again, Barnaby is an extreme case. But ordinary people make decisions on how to interact with children based on such high profile stories.
The effect on average people in non-extreme situations can be partially gauged through a study conducted by Dr. Heather Piper at Manchester Metropolitan University: "The Problematics of 'Touching' Between Children and Professionals." Piper examined six case-study schools through interviews with teachers, parents and children regarding the propriety of touch.
Commentator Josie Appleton reviewed the study, "Reported cases include the teacher who avoided putting a plaster [bandaid] on a child's scraped leg; nursery staff calling a child's mother every time he needed to go to the toilet; a male gym teacher leaving a girl injured in the hall while he waited for a female colleague."
One school reportedly kept an account of every 'touching incident.' They stated, "We write down a short account and date it and put which staff were present and at what time, we then explain it to the parent and ask them to read and sign it."
Appleton observed that this is more in keeping with "police logs than teaching children."
The last words encapsulate the problem.
Touching a child, even to render medical assistance, has become a potential police matter.
Child abuse must be addressed but it is worse than folly to punish those who help children. Our society is creating Clive Peachey -- decent men who will walk away from a child in need.
Abby Rae died not only from drowning but also from bad politics.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.