By Lenore Skenazy

Sometimes, when I try to explain how frenzied we have become about the real but extremely rare crime of childhood abduction, I compare our era to that of 1692 Salem. There was no way — back then, back there — to convince the average person: Don’t you see you’re being swept up on a wave of mass hysteria? History will judge you as totally mad! (Though eventually, I suppose, that’ll be great for tourism.)

Folks in and around Salem, Mass., were convinced that witches were everywhere casting spells. In the end, 150 people were arrested as witches and 19 hanged, all for — we can see with the perspective of time — no reason.

Now, I’m not saying that there are absolutely no evil folks in the world today who wish harm upon children. But to imagine them everywhere, ever poised to snatch children, is to see the world through Salem eyes. Eyes blinded by hysteria. And yet look what is happening in England.

“One quarter of the adult population will require criminal records checks under the new child protection system coming into force next year, according to a report criticising the scheme,” wrote The Times, a British newspaper.

That’s right: One-fourth of all adults in Britain will be forced to undergo background checks to determine whether they ever have been convicted of crimes related to pedophilia. The basic assumption being: Anyone who has any contact with children should be considered a pedophile until proved otherwise.

And it’s starting to happen in the United States, too. I’ve heard from parents in a handful of states who say their local public schools are requiring something similar. One Texas mom was barred from her daughter’s kindergarten Christmas party because her background check hadn’t cleared yet. (Eventually, the teacher relented, but the mother had to stand at the very back of the classroom and could not interact with any child except her own.)

You can imagine that this type of law makes adults less eager to volunteer for schools, Scouts or any other activity with kids involved because they have to undergo (and often pay for) security checks first. But what’s worse is that in this suspicious climate, adults grow wary of any involvement with kids. Frank Furedi, author of “Paranoid Parenting,” cites the story of a 2-year-old who wandered away from her nursery. A man driving by noticed her on the street, but (as he later testified at an inquest) he didn’t stop to help for fear he’d be accused of trying to abduct her.

She ended up at a pond. And drowned.

If we have reached the point in society where basic adult concern for children is mistaken for evil, we’re back in Salem, 1692. The next “witch” could be you, comforting the kid who fell off her swing or volunteering for the school dance without a background check. Or, of course, letting your children go “free-range” and being accused of depraved indifference to all the black magic swirling around them.

Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry.”

© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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