April 7, 2004
Normally, it might not be considered big news when an organization like the Block parent program in West Northumberland announces it is downsizing to concentrate its operation in Port Hope. We are accustomed to businesses talking about streamlining, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
But in the same week as Co-ordinator Wendy Vasey was publicly announcing the changes, we watched in horror as the body of nine-year old Cecilia Zhang was found in a wooded area in Mississauga. The gut-wrenching details were heartbreaking. Anyone who is a parent, or has grandchildren, or who loves kids could not help but share in the pain of family and friends of this innocent child.
Immediately we remember the other sweet lives that were taken by child-killers. Names like Holly Jones, Andrea Atkinson, Christine Jessop, Alison Parrot, Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, Kayla Klaudusz, Heather Thomas and Christopher Stephenson haunt parents, worried about the safety of their own children.
There could not be a worse time to reduce this important service in the community. But the reasons are typical of so many organizations: lack of people and money.
Ms. Vasey said the group started nearly 30 years ago. In fact, the first Block Parent program was started in London, Ontario in 1968. She said Port Hope started just shortly afterward and was one of the first in the province.
The program thrived as community-minded people looked out for children. Really, it is not a complicated service. Volunteers are screened and, once accepted, put a sign in the window of their home or business. This tells children, young adults, even seniors, it is haven when potential trouble exists. Once a group is formed in a neighbourhood, road signs are posted telling people it is a Block Parent zone. This acts both as a deterrent to child predators and assurance to children and families the area is relatively safe.
Northumberland Block Parents included Cobourg, Grafton, Roseneath, Brighton, Colborne and Campbellford. The western region will be most seriously affected with only Port Hope staying active.
The group operates on a total budget of $3,000 minimum and a current bank account of around $1,000, said Ms. Vasey. Port Hope council has offered some financial assistance. With three executive members, fundraising is difficult. Many people are happy to be a Block Parent home, but few wish to help with administration and seeking donations, she said.
Northumberland is not alone in losing its Block parent program. Toronto and Ottawa have closed its programs recently.
Cobourg Police Chief Gerry Clement said it is sad, but not surprising. Many police forces, once the champions of Block Parent programs, say it is too great a legal liability to participate anymore. Approving homes as safe havens is very stringent. Whereas it was a quick check many years ago, now involves laborious detailed record checks of all family members in the house. And, if anything changes, like marital breakup or someone moves out, then the checks may need to be done again. That is just too much work for the police, the chief said.
But it should not be too much work for our community.
To believe our communities in West Northumberland are safe from these kinds of crimes borders on delusion. It can happen any time. Chief Clement said the police are monitoring just less than 10 sexual offenders in Cobourg at this moment. The threat is real.
It must not take an incident like the murder of Cecilia Zhang to be a wake up call. That is too huge a price to pay for our children, our families, our friends and neighbours.
A local service club needs to step forward and take on the financial responsibility of running a successful Block Parent program. Volunteers must come out to run the organization, possibly hiring part-time employees, if necessary, to ensure home checks are done and it is not arduous on participants. Nobody will deny the importance of police checks. It is just getting help with the cost and making the administration easier.
We need to revitalize community interest. School parent associations could provide impetus and education for families about the program and energize parents to get involved.
Finally, police departments cannot turn their backs. Port Hope police force is active with its Block Parent program. Cobourg and the OPP need to join in. There is little doubt the forces would actively support the programs, But with tight budgets and pressure to provide other services, this kind of program does not make it to the top of the list. Yet, it would take a lot less time and resources to invest in this program than paying a detective overtime to solve a murder. And there is no justification to argue otherwise.
Politicians and school board trustees could provide valuable leadership by raising public awareness.
We cannot wait. One incident is far too many and we could never go back to make it right. Our children and their families deserve nothing less of us as a community.