A Right And Wrong Way To Hug Kids -- Fear Of Abuse Accusations Puts Limitations On Touching

During communion, the Rev. Craig Boly, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, waits for parents to bring their children forward for a blessing. He used to reach out without thinking and lay his hand on their heads. Now, he's learned to wait and see how each child feels about it.

When little children from the elementary school next door, who've come to know and trust him, run over for an affectionate greeting, he is delighted; but "cautious of letting them come to me."

And he would never now take a child by himself to an event: "I always make sure there's a carload of kids."

The priest of the Seattle church is saddened by his own reserved demeanor, but pragmatic.

"Because of the climate we're in, it's essential for the well-being of the child as well as the reputation of the professional person, that not only does a relationship have to be OK - it has to look OK."

These days, touching children is one of the touchiest subjects around, not only among priests but among coaches, teachers, day-care providers.

At the YMCA, child-care workers and camp counselors must take child-abuse training that includes the right way to hug kids. The Seattle School District has a brochure for teachers that talks about "safer touches." The Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle runs a mandatory workshop on sexual abuse and misconduct that addresses appropriate and inappropriate touching.

Kisses. Bear hugs. Slaps on the back or buttocks. Kids don't get these kinds of every-day spontaneous affectionate gestures from adults outside their families so much anymore.

In light of the unending gruesome stories about child abuse and the public's consequent vigilance, people in the business of working with kids worry that they may be a target of false accusations. They're also sensitive to the personal boundaries of children who simply may not welcome a touch or who've been so thoroughly "stranger-proofed" that even an innocent hug might cause confusion - or accusations.

Consequently, for some adults it's become routine to let the child initiate gestures of affection.

Misunderstandings arise

Over at Latona School in Wallingford, retired businessman Richard Blount has volunteered for years as a reading tutor. When working with a child, he makes sure the two of them are "in a place that's lighted where people come and go."

Blount knows how easy it is for the situation to be misunderstood. About a year ago, he picked up his student from school for an outing to Mount Rainier. Two women driving by thought they saw Blount force the boy into his car and followed.

Somewhere near Puyallup, they pulled up in front of him, jumped out and screamed "Call 911" to a woman in her front yard, accusing him of kidnapping the boy and having a gun in his car (it turned out to be a package of cookies).

A police officer arrived, called the boy's grandparent and the mess was straightened out. Blount went on to have "a great day" at Mount Rainier with his young friend.

And even though he was the target of mistaken suspicion, this heightened caution about children does not overly concern the tutor.

He remembers hating being tickled as a child but putting up with it from a certain adult because nobody told the adult to stop and he didn't know how to refuse.

If adults now have to give up some private one-on-one time with a child or touching to be more respectful, it's worth it, he says. Especially "if it saves one child in a thousand from having touching he didn't want."

Men feel vulnerable

Men can feel particularly vulnerable to scrutiny when they're around kids - not surprising, considering convicted abusers are predominantly men.

While most men and women who work at day-care centers don't feel vulnerable to accusations, male workers who do have a concern "say they would rather not be left alone with a group of children . . . or that they'd rather not be in a position of changing diapers or cleaning kids up by themselves," says regional day-care-center licenser Marge Sorlie.

Many employers are just as cautious. They mandate employee training that not only describes how to identify and report sexual and physical abuse but ways to be affectionate with a child that can't possibly be interpreted as sexual.

At the YMCA, the definition of proper and improper touching regarding school-age children has become quite specific over recent years. In the past, it was all right for an employee to give a youngster who needed consoling a big two-armed hug.

It's not anymore.

A child might run up and embrace a counselor, but that counselor is trained simply to wrap an arm around the child from the side. Kissing school-age children is out. And if such a child playfully crawls onto a day-care worker's lap for a story, he's gently encouraged to sit nearby on the floor.

It's still important to have physical contact, but "Now, we have to learn that we don't give frontal hugs. We can give a pat on the shoulder or a high five," says Susan Strong, director of risk management for the YMCA.

"We need to show other ways of saying `Good job' or `You're OK.' "

Child care has become much more sanitized because of the child-abuse issue, says Josh Sutton, who runs teen programs for the YMCA in West Seattle.

"The concerns are primarily for the protection of the institution, partially for the protection of the staff. It is not about what the kid may need or not."

In its brochure "Appropriate Touching," the Seattle School District lists "safer touch areas" as the shoulders, upper back, head, arms and hands. It recommends teachers touch all students in a consistent manner and be aware of how a touch may be received given a student's cultural and personal perspective.

They're also taught to give kids a choice of how they want to be touched. So a teacher might say: "Hey. Do you want a hug, handshake or high five?"

At the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, every employee and volunteer must take a daylong workshop on sexual abuse, misconduct and harassment in all situations be it with adults or children.

Some priests are so shocked by incidents of priest pedophilia and consequently so careful, "they're reluctant to even pat a kid on the back," says John McCoy, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle.

What about the children?

And what about the kids? Are they missing out on a kind of easy affection and recognition that earlier generations enjoyed?

Some people who work with children on a regular basis believe that does happen, and that the new levels of cautiousness can even be degrading to the relationship between child and adult.

But others, such as Laura Merchant, director of counseling services at the Sexual Assault Center of Harborview Medical Center, aren't concerned about a strong negative effect on children. She's sure there's still lots of positive physical contact going on between adults and kids. "It's just more thoughtful," she said. "It's important to be considerate of a child's boundaries; that should be your first thinking . . . allowing more choice to the child."

And Sutton at the YMCA believes people who care about kids aren't going to let their own paranoia or their boss' fears or public hysteria get in the way.

"They know how to show affection that is honest for their sake and the kid's sake that isn't sanitized," he said.

What worries some people more is that today's urban children aren't bonded the way they used to be to the adults in their communities - adults who were interested in kids' welfare and not afraid to show it: the postman who had a friendly daily remark, the neighbor who called them over for a freshly baked cookie, the business owner who asked:"How come you're hanging out with nothing to do?"

"I think there's an element of diminishment for our young people today; because of living in a society that's more impersonal, that has less of a connection between the family and extended community," said the Rev. Boly.