Keeping Our Children Safe

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Toronto police announced a year ago that Peter Whitmore — a convicted pedophile with a long history of abusing children — was being released into the community. A huge swell of community protest mounted until the man was driven underground, only to be arrested within a month. He was found with a 13-year-old boy in his hotel room.

Whitmore has spent the past year in prison. He has just been released again. The police have notified the public, and, once more, the public is outraged.

One might think that, as a twenty-year veteran of the anti-violence movement, I was pleased with these police measures and the resulting reaction — but I do not feel safer with these kinds of knee-jerk strategies to crime prevention.

I was angered by the inordinate amount of attention paid to this one offender by the Toronto police and the media last year, and frustrated by the fear-based energy that his neighbours wasted while attempting to protect their children.

Back then, roughly 1,500 people showed up at a community meeting with police to express their disgust and unwillingness to share their neighbourhood with this scum. The pressure became so intense the man was forced to move into the invisibility of downtown Toronto streets.

Given this man’s long criminal record of violence, it is worrisome as to why the Attorney General’s office never requested a dangerous offender hearing during his various trials — including his latest arrest.

Surely Peter Whitmore easily qualified for this special status, which would have kept him incarcerated indefinitely. I suspect the answer lies in economics, as it is a very expensive and time-consuming process.

If there was a mistake made during sentencing, it does not give the police the moral authority to now correct the error at the expense of Peter Whitmore’s constitutional rights.

The police have determined that Whitmore is at risk of re- offending and believe “it would be absolutely irresponsible and unconscionable not to let people know,” according to staff inspector Gary Ellis, head of the Sexual Assault Squad.

Even the police admit though, that they can’t prove if community notification actually protects children and have since reversed their decision to release Whitmore’s address.

Prisoner advocates and treatment experts suggest the pressure of public scrutiny and stress of being targeted as a monster by their neighbours may contribute to the possibility of re-offending.

Successful integration after prison often depends on supports and connections within the offender’s daily contacts. Driving Peter Whitmore out of his Etobicoke neighbourhood to the invisibility of downtown Toronto was reactionary, short sighted and likely set the stage for the breach of his parole condition.

The public, fuelled by police self-interest, still believes many of the myths about sexual assault and violent crime. Many think it is the creepy stranger lurking behind bushes ready to snatch their children they have to fear. In fact, more than 90 per cent of abuse survivors were hurt by someone they knew, most often a family member (usually father or stepfather) or professional acquaintance — such as a teacher, doctor, priest or babysitter.

In reality, we all live amongst sex offenders. As scary as it may be — they are our neighbours, our friends and our family.

One can hardly blame the public for its reaction as people have depended on the police for their information about crime prevention. The police — most especially their bully of a union and reactionary police chief — have perpetuated the myth that crime is out of control and public safety depends on hiring more cops.

Crime is actually on the decrease, and has been for several years. In spite of this, police budgets have steadily increased. Most other social and public services have seen their funding dramatically reduced.

The police, for the most part, respond to crime after it happens. Yet only one in ten survivors of sexual assault ever report it. Crime prevention is clearly beyond the control of the criminal justice system.

The underlying causes of sexual assault, incest, child abuse and domestic violence are complex and deeply rooted in our socialization. Consequently, any effective solutions must involve the entire community in a thoughtful, honest and courageous approach.

Overreacting vigilante-style to one man who has sexually abused children will do nothing to protect our loved ones. It only continues to promote myths about sexual assault. As a parent, I appreciate how difficult it is to remain calm when thinking about the potential risks to our children.

One can easily become blinded by rage and sickened by the capacity for evil amongst us. These emotions can distort our thinking so it is particularly important for the public to be educated about the facts and real risks.

It may be comforting to me as a parent to believe that I would be able to spot an offender, it will be my children and our future that will be forever harmed by my illusory peace of mind.

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