Sunday, July 31, 1988
Professionals tread a fine line when Touching Children
By Jean Heller
St. Petersburg Times - July 31, 1988
Edmond John Hartmann says he will never forget the moment in March of 1987 when the sheriff's deputy in New Port Richey told him why he had been ordered to come to the station.
``She says to me, `You're charged with child molesting. Do you want a lawyer?' `` Hartmann recalled. ``I said, `No, I'm innocent.' She read me my rights and locked me up. I spent two months in jail.``
Last Tuesday, 16 months after the ordeal began for the 61-year-old Pasco County school bus driver, it ended. After two alleged young victims testified that, in fact, Hartmann had never assaulted them, Circuit Judge Edward H. Bergstrom dismissed the case saying the lack of evidence made him think he'd just walked through the looking glass into Alice's Wonderland.
Hartmann says he is unsure if he will return to his bus. If he does, he says, it will be with a different attitude:
``It used to be when kids got on the bus with runny noses, I'd wipe them. If their shoes were unlaced, I'd tie them. Now? Hell, no. No way. Never. I can't do it any more. It's not that I don't want to. I don't dare.``
The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse estimates that incidents of reported abuse and molestation of children are up 2,000 percent in the last decade, according to the current issue of Parenting magazine.
Most of the reported cases originate in private homes, but more and more of them involve schools, day-care centers, youth organizations and support groups.
The staggering increase in cases and the irreversible damage they can inflict has caused a wide-ranging group of child-care professionals to alter their work habits, attitudes and daily routines. Many of them say they now approach their jobs with one eye on the needs of their kids and the other eye on the lawbooks.
Some counselors, for instance, are prevented from riding in a car with a member of the opposite sex unless another adult is present.
Teachers are protecting themselves against possible abuse charges by joining unions that will help pay legal expenses. And youth groups fear that the number of men willing to work with children is in rapid decline.
``One of the problems all this has created is that teachers, bus drivers, anyone who has contact with children, knows (abuse charges) could happen to them,`` said Tom Weightman, superintendent of Pasco County public schools, the system in which bus driver Edmond Hartmann worked.
``For education to be successful, pupils have to know that their teachers care about them, but the little hugs or pats on the shoulder which are meant innocently can be misconstrued and turned into serious trouble,`` said Weightman, whose school system endured another celebrated case two years ago in which a teacher spent eight months clearing himself of charges that he fondled two 10-year-old pupils.
``We find teachers thinking twice before they touch, however innocently,`` he said.
Even if cleared, a teacher or other child-care professional faces a ruined career from the mere allegation of child abuse.
``That innocent teacher will live the rest of his life with a comma after his name, as in: `Teacher John Doe, who was once accused and later cleared of child molestation,' `` said Dr. Gus Sakkis, retired superintendent of Pinellas County schools.
The repercussions of false allegations perhaps were underscored by the case of Douglas Tarrant.
An assistant superintendent of the Pinellas County School District, Tarrant committed suicide earlier this month after a 15-year-old girl accused him of lewd and lascivious behavior. Family members said the accusation had deepened his depression over failing health.
Tarrant died two days after the girl changed her story, but no one told him. Sensitized
The litany of accusations, convictions and exonerations has sensitized the so-called children's caretaker industry - teachers, counselors and support groups - and the children in their care.
David Voss, director of communications for state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, says that such sensitivity might victimize some innocent adults, but he insists that false accusations might be an unavoidable part of dealing with the problem of child abuse.
``Being aware of the abuse possibilities, being aware of the need to be watchful for real abuse and wary of actions which could bring false accusations, is part of teacher training and teacher in-service training,`` Voss said.
``On the other side, parents take their kids to classes that sensitize them about improper touches and how to report them. That training could lead a child who is angry with a teacher to lie about an incident or to misinterpret an innocent gesture for something sinister. But false reporting is a consequence we simply have to pay in order to get greater reporting of incidents that are true.``
Many experts worry that caretakers' growing concern with their legal position is hurting their job performances. Moreover, they wonder if discouraging false or mistaken allegations also might discourage youngsters from reporting genuine cases of abuse.
Sakkis, the retired Pinellas superintendent, says teacher awareness of child abuse has grown dramatically in the eight years since he retired. He said such sensitivity could affect a teacher's judgment.
``At any given moment, a teacher might avoid hugging a child he might otherwise have hugged, and that might be the child who really needed it at that moment,`` he said.
Bill Hayes, president and co-founder of the Clearwater-based Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation for troubled youths, agrees.
``All children, up to the age of about 10, are incapable of dealing in academia and logic,`` Hayes said. ``They can deal only in love. And if we don't deal in love back to them, there's a group of kids not getting what it takes to make school successful.
The Rodriguez Foundation deals with youngsters through a golf program.
``We create a camaraderie between a child and an adult,`` Hayes said. ``It's not `we' and `they.' It's a partnership.``
Hayes acknowledged that he and his staff are vulnerable to charges of abuse and molestation, but he said it does not affect the way they react to students.
``Some people are very conscious of the law and avoid getting involved with children on a personal basis these days,`` he said. ``We don't. We take the risk.``
Not everyone is willing to take the risk. Some counselors have adopted special rules.
``Members of our staff can't drive with students of the opposite sex without another adult present, and we try to have a lot of adults and a lot of kids around in all situations,`` said Scott Bruner, director of St. Petersburg's Youth for Christ program.
But some situations call for different measures.
``Sometimes you have a kid, let's say he's in an incest situation at home, who might take one adult into his confidence and open up, but would never talk to a room full of adults,`` Bruner said. ``In those cases, sometimes you have to take a chance. There are times when you just have to put your arm around a kid's shoulders and tell him you appreciate him. You just have to take care not to go any further.``
Fixing the problem
Despite a growing concern with these issues among individual children's caretakers, there is little or no coordinated national effort to resolve the situation.
Dan Sexton, director of the Los Angeles-based Childhelp U.S.A., the only national hotline for abused children, said he ``does not doubt for a minute`` statistics showing incidents of reported child abuse are up 2,000 percent in the last 10 years.
``This hotline started in 1982, and that year we recorded 8,600 calls,`` Sexton said. ``Last year, we had 150,000. But while the reports of abuse are up dramatically, funding for programs to deal with abuse is only up 20 percent.``
And little new financing is expected in the near future.
With the Reagan administration winding down, the U.S. Department of Education's acknowledged expert on child abuse issues left Washington several weeks ago to become dean of the School of Education at Boston University.
Peter Greer, former deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, says the level of the problem today is far outpacing the search for solutions.
``Principals are being told more and more by superintendents to bring these matters up at the first staff meeting each year, and they wind up advising their teachers, `Don't touch, don't hug,' `` said Greer, superintendent of the school system in Portland, Maine, when it implemented one of the toughest child abuse reporting laws in the country.
``I think it affects secondary school teachers more than elementary teachers,`` Greer said. ``Elementary teachers naturally touch and hug, and that's the way it's always going to be. When you talk about secondary schools, I question whether it's proper to kiss and hug students of that age, anyway. But I would never tell a teacher who does it innocently and naturally to stop. I would simply tell him to be cautious.`` A decline in volunteers
One effect of the rising number of abuse reports is the apparent downturn in the number of men volunteering for youth support work.
``We have had, both nationally and locally, a gradual decline in the numbers of men coming into our program,`` said Thomas Esslinger, director of the Big Brother and Big Sister programs in Largo. ``I think that's due to a variety of things, but the proliferation of abuse charges is one of the concerns, definitely.``
Barbara Knowles, director of the Pinellas County Licensing Board for day-care centers, fears that the threat of abuse charges ``will deter additional quality men from coming into loving contact with children who need such contact from women and men, alike.``
In fact, some children's caretakers, particularly teachers, have begun arming themselves against possible abuse charges by joining unions that will help pay the cost of their legal defenses.
But even the unions don't pretend to have all the answers.
``When we go to convention, we have speakers who tell us how important it is to hug kids, to hold hands, touch them and teach them how much you care,`` said Sam Rosales, executive director of Classroom Teachers Association of Tampa, which helps pay legal expenses.
``That speaker is generally followed by an attorney warning teachers to watch it, not to touch because they're inviting a lawsuit,`` he said. ``We know we're sending out mixed signals, but they're both correct, and it's very frustrating.``
Hayes, of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation, summed up that frustration:
``What kids need is to know that someone cares, but in this day and age of one-parent families or two-parent families with both parents working, of classroom computers, school busing and lunchrooms that look like the Department of Motor Vehicles offices, life for our children is more and more impersonal.
``And the one potential chink in that impersonality - our teachers - are trying to do their jobs with chalk in one hand and lawbooks in the other. It hasn't worked, it isn't working, and it never will work.``