Letters, sounds and words. Since 2004 I have been a volunteer in Strong Start, an early-intervention literacy program that operates in school boards throughout southwestern Ontario. Strong Start selects children in kindergarten and grade 1 who are behind in their reading skills and provides them with weekly one-on-one sessions at school with parent-volunteers to work on their letters, sounds and words. Most of the activities in the 10 half-hour sessions consist of reading-based games and memory work.
In my experience, one of the most popular games is Fishing for Words. Students use a small magnetic fishing rod to “catch” colourful paper fish. Each fish has a paperclip in its mouth and a word on its back. If the child knows the word, it goes in a bucket; if not, it goes back on the floor to be caught again. There are many other activities involving dice, cards and toys, as well as plenty of little books to read together.
Over the past two decades I’ve coached nearly 80 students in Strong Start. I began when my own kids attended the school, but have kept at it long after they left. As a journalist, I often joke that I’m doing it for entirely selfish reasons – to ensure younger generations grow up to be discerning readers. But I’d be doing it even if there wasn’t an occupational benefit. It is both immensely satisfying and tremendous fun helping kids learn how to read in this way.
A lot less enjoyable are the many hassles that come with being a volunteer these days. When I started, prospective coaches were required to attend two 2-hour sessions on the Strong Start system and the program’s rules. It was all sensible advice. Avoid any physical contact. Keep your door open at all times. Never bring a student a gift. If unsure, ask for help.
After a few years, coaches were required to get a police check. This was a bit of a bother because you had to go down to the police station during work hours, but at least it was free. And the resulting report could be used for other volunteering activities I did, like coaching hockey. Then that one police check became an every-other-year police check, requiring a biennial trip to the police station. When the system moved online, which sounded like a good thing, it became necessary to upload a signed letter from the volunteer organization to process your request. But that means you now have to get a separate police check for every volunteer activity you do. And they now cost $20 each.
This year my Strong Start commitment got even more complicated when my police check came back positive. Someone with my birth date and gender is now listed on the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR), and I had to go to the police station for fingerprinting to confirm I’m not that guy. Presumably, this will also be a biennial thing, since my evil doppelganger is going to be on NSOR forever.
Despite all the inconveniences, however, my interest in Strong Start remains high. And so, with proof in hand that I’m not a convicted sex offender, I stood ready for another session this fall. Early in October I received the new schedule – I had two grade 1 kids on Tuesday mornings – and I was ready to go. But just before the session was to begin, another email arrived explaining that Strong Start is “on pause” across the entire school board because of “a security issue.” There will be no letters, sounds or words for the kids this term.
My Strong Start saga is more than just a writer’s indulgence in life’s little miseries. It offers concrete proof of a significant but overlooked problem threatening Canada’s entire volunteering sector. With no effective upper limit on demands for police checks and other security measures, the complications of being a volunteer – not just in education but sports, arts and any other effort aimed at helping children – are becoming progressively more daunting. And this is having a real impact on the supply of volunteers across the country. Potential volunteers are deciding it’s too much work, hassle or stress to get involved. Existing volunteers are giving up. And an unknown number of programs are folding, going “on pause” or never starting in the first place.
Before it was cancelled, this year’s roster of Strong Start volunteers at my school was barely half what it was when I started in 2004, suggesting plenty of other parents have decided to skip the indignities of never-ending police checks and quit the program. And whether the mysterious “security issue” is resolved or not (neither the school board nor Strong Start responded to my questions about the reason behind the pause), those kids I was meant to be coaching right now will never get the extra help I could have given them.
Sum together all the other individual cases of vanished volunteers and lost experiences throughout the country and you reveal a national calamity – the slow, invisible and inexorable diminution of our collective sense of community. In our efforts to keep our children as safe as possible, we are robbing them of the very things that make life meaningful.
Canada’s Generosity Gap
Ample evidence suggests Canadians today are less giving of their time and talent than they once were. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent figures, the percentage of Canadians who willingly volunteer for charitable endeavours dropped from 47 percent to 41 percent between 2010 and 2018. Hours worked per volunteer also fell over this period, from 156 hours per volunteer to 130 hours. In 1987 it was 191 hours. This decline in volunteerism tracks a similar drop in the number of charitable donors in Canada.
There are many possible explanations for the observed reduction in generosity. Certainly Covid-19 had an impact on social interactions of all kinds. But the fall in volunteering represents a long-term trend that predates the pandemic; its cause is more likely to be found in ongoing secular trends such as changing work patterns, loss of community attachment and growth in social isolation. But there’s evidence to suggest deliberate policy choices are also at work. As we make it harder to become a volunteer, we are getting fewer volunteers.
The federal government’s current guide to best practices for Canada’s charitable sector lists ten steps to properly screen prospective volunteers. Step 7 calls for police record checks for most applicants, and enhanced Vulnerable Sector (VS) police checks whenever the activity involves children, the elderly or the disabled. Regular record checks can be conducted by any local police service and provide a list of an individual’s criminal convictions. It is then up to the organization to decide if a candidate’s criminal record disqualifies them from the position. However, such a basic police check leaves out certain things, in particular pardoned sex offenses. Only a VS police check which involves a scan of NSOR performed by the RCMP will reveal the full history of past sex offences. It also shows warrants outstanding and cases in which an applicant has been declared not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder.
Because of its additional thoroughness plus Ottawa’s official recommendation, VS police checks have become the gold standard throughout the volunteer sector. But as volunteer agencies become increasingly fixated on liability issues, this standard has evolved to become ever-more rigorous. Since a police check is only good on the day it is issued (you could commit a horrific crime the very next day), what began as a one-off task has since morphed into an every-other-year requirement. And the move to online processing in Ontario means, as I discovered with Strong Start, if you want to pursue more than one volunteer activity you now need more than one VS police check. (An obvious absurdity, since if you are not a sex offender when applying to be a literacy coach, you are also not a sex offender for the purposes of coaching soccer or hockey.)
Crisis in the Volunteer Sector
“These added burdens have become a barrier that is preventing people from accessing volunteer positions,” observes Joanna DeJong VanHof, a researcher at Cardus, a Hamilton-based social policy think tank. VanHof is the author of a 2022 study that takes a close look at the impact police check requirements are having on Canada’s volunteer sector.
VanHof’s report connects the decline in the national volunteer rate with the various costs, in both time and money, that arise from now-ubiquitous demands for VS police checks. While a standard police check at your local police station is often free, VS police checks can cost up to $35 each in Ontario because of the involvement of the RCMP and NSOR. And while some volunteer agencies cover this cost, many non-profits lack the budget to do so, forcing people to open their own wallet in order to work for free.
To these out-of-pocket expenses must be added the time cost of a trip to the police station – a substantial obligation in rural areas where the nearest police station can be an hour or more away. Online applications also require a valid credit history, which can be a barrier for some. And if it a check comes back positive, as in my case, then fingerprinting is necessary as well.
“There comes a point at which all these added burdens begin to inhibit the natural evolution of community efforts and volunteer activities,” VanHof observes. While the costs involved are small and mostly invisible to statistics keepers, there’s good reason to believe they are having a big impact on the public’s willingness to volunteer. In 2019, a Senate investigation into the crisis in Canada’s charitable sector recognized the “challenges to organizations imposed by legal requirements or best practice recommendations to obtain criminal record checks for volunteers.”
VanHof argues that governments should address these challenges by covering the fees for all volunteer-sector police checks. In Ontario, she figures such a policy would cost $18 million a year. Considering the important role volunteer organizations play in replacing or supplementing taxpayer-funded programs in education, health care and social services, she argues this makes economic sense as well as being good social policy. “If we want to address the decline in volunteering in Canada, we need to come up with better policies,” VanHof argues.
Bathing Suits for Dressing Rooms
Alongside the bother and expense of police checks, the volunteer sector has lately found itself inundated with innumerable other burdensome rules in the name of enhanced safety and screening. Many sport associations, for example, have been rocked by accusations of sexual interference, impropriety and bullying of players by top-level coaches. The response has been to unleash a landslide of new restrictions on what volunteer coaches can do or say.
The “Rule of Two” is now rigorously enforced throughout the minor sporting world. This requires that no adult ever be left alone with any child not their own. A hockey coach must therefore always have another coach or approved adult with them at all times in the dressing room. This may seem reasonable, but it is often taken to ridiculous extremes, with coaches told they cannot even drive another child to a game. Everyone is supposed to be terrified of finding themselves alone with any kid. As a practical result, one-on-one time no longer exists in the sporting world.
Going even further, this year Hockey Canada announced a new “Minimum Attire” rule. Every hockey player in a league sanctioned by Hockey Canada (nearly all non-pro hockey up to the age of 21) must now come to the arena wearing a base layer they cannot take off. And no one can shower after a game without first putting on a bathing suit in a bathroom stall. Hockey Canada says this is necessary to ensure all players feel “safe and secure” in the dressing room. But even the organization’s many critics are puzzled by the move. While Hockey Canada has come under intense scrutiny for its past behaviour in covering up sexual assaults by elite players in hotel rooms, no one was complaining about how players showered after their games. Like many other recent measures across the volunteer sector, it seems designed to create the appearance of an intense focus on safety, without any credible evidence it is necessary or effective.
Gratuitous policies of this sort inevitably create unintended consequences. (Not to mention an unholy stink in the dressing room after a game.) My hockey coaching days are over but one current minor hockey coach I know told me he refused to open the “Minimum Attire” email from Hockey Canada when it arrived in his inbox. That way, he says, he can legitimately claim ignorance about the whole thing and run his dressing room as he sees fit. For now, at least. Such an attitude can be considered one of those unexpected consequences. Volunteers who don’t quit outright may simply switch off.
Ground Zero in Brampton
Despite the many significant, if largely hidden, costs arising from our current mania for police checks and other over-the-top safety procedures, this obsession did not occur in a vacuum. Its origins can be traced back to a single, terrible murder 35 years ago, and a perfectly understandable desire to protect defenceless children.
In June 1988, 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson was snatched from a Brampton, Ontario shopping mall while his mother and sister browsed. Christopher was taken at knifepoint to the nearby apartment of paroled pedophile Joseph Fredericks, where he was repeatedly molested. Fredericks then slit Chrisopher’s throat and dumped his body beside some train tracks. His body was found on Father’s Day.
A coroner’s inquest several years later recommended the creation of a national system to track convicted sex offenders such as Fredericks in order to improve community safety. After a long delay beset by numerous political machinations, this resulted in the birth of NSOR in 2004. In addition to monitoring where released sex offenders live and work, NSOR also contains a searchable list of pardoned sex offenders which has become a key source of information for the volunteer sector. But as heart-breaking as Christopher’s murder may be, faith that a VS police check can prevent another similar crime is largely misplaced.
In 2012, as part of its “Tough on Crime” agenda, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper eliminated the possibility of pardons for most sex crimes against minors. This means anyone who commits a “Schedule 1” sex offence after 2012 will have that crime permanently recorded on their standard (and usually free) police check. As a result, NSOR is now only useful for spotting sex offenders who were pardoned prior to the legislation coming into force. “As we move farther away from 2012, it becomes less likely that anyone is going to turn out to be a pardoned sex offender” if they pass a routine police check, notes Cardus’s VanHof. Despite their exalted standing within the volunteer sector, VS checks are actually becoming less relevant with every passing year.
VanHof raises several other important concerns about relying solely on VS police checks to keep kids safe. Consider some of Canada’s most notorious sex offenders, such as hockey coach and serial sex abuser Graham James, Anglican priest Ralph Rowe, who abused hundreds of native children in northern Manitoba as a scout leader in the 1970s and 1980s, and Ontario Provincial Police officer Gary Blair Walker, who did the same thing for three decades as a judo instructor, hockey coach and school bus driver in eastern Ontario until he was arrested in 1992. Significantly, all were first-time offenders when finally apprehended. None of their dark predilections would have shown up on any criminal record check. “The VS check is designed to catch repeat offenders,” points out VanHof. But most of the real monsters are unlikely to reoffend, either because once caught they’re never getting out of jail or because they’re subjected to constant public attention once released.
And while Fredericks was, admittedly, a repeat offender out on statutory release when he killed Chrisopher Stephenson, recidivist sex crimes are surprisingly rare. According to a recent Corrections Canada study, “The lowest rate of reoffending was among offenders who had served a sentence for a sexual offence.” Plus, adds VanHof, the vast majority of perpetrators of child abuse and sexual offences never see the inside of a courtroom. “By having to obtain repeated VS checks, volunteers are being made to bear the burden of the failure of the criminal justice system to report, charge, and convict these offences,” she says.
There is, of course, always a risk that a convicted sexual predator could find a way to reoffend, as the Fredericks case demonstrates. Allowing even one known sex offender to gain access to vulnerable children would be a horrendous event. But we need to recognize that this risk is quite small. And no amount of scrutiny can guarantee it will never happen. At the same time, we also need to recognize that the impact of enforcing overly-strict – and often quite redundant – security protocols can be equally terrible when measured in the loss to the volunteering effort and community spirit across Canada. Finding an appropriate balance requires acknowledging both sides of this conundrum.
VanHof recommends that volunteer organizations rely less on VS police checks and more on their own hard work and due diligence in interviewing candidates and tracking down their references. Not only is this more effective at spotting potential problems, it also shifts the task away from volunteers themselves, who must now do their own screening at their own expense. The goal, she says, should be to make volunteering easier and more rewarding. “Volunteering has a been a key component of Canada’s values for a very long time,” VanHof notes. “It creates a shared sense of purpose and community. And to see that being reduced for any reason is really discouraging.”
Red and White and Seen All Over
The price paid for focusing excessively on the risks of volunteering to the exclusion of its benefits can be seen in the unhappy trajectory of Block Parents, once one of Canada’s greatest volunteer success stories. Block Parents’ enormous achievement in mobilizing neighbours and fostering a sense of community engagement was once immediately recognizable by the hundreds of thousands of red and white signs that peppered living room windows across the country. Behind every one of those signs was an offer to help a stranger in need.
Like NSOR, Block Parents came about in response to a horrifying murder. Unlike NSOR, however, the impact was immediate, effective and community-led. At 8 am on Friday, February 9, 1968, 9-year-old Frankie Jensen left for Westdale Public School in London, Ontario as he always did, with his lunch box in hand and 40 cents in his pocket. He never made it to class. Two months later his body was discovered face down in the Thames River, partially naked. His killer has never been found.
The shock at Frankie’s murder stirred his community to swift action. Spearheaded by the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Block Parents program was born later that same year. Its purpose was to provide children with a safe place to go if they found themselves in distress. Participating households placed distinctive red and white signs in their front windows whenever they were home, and stood ready to assist if ever there was a knock at their door. At a time when most kids walked to school and most moms stayed at home, the program gave life to the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Help was available on every street in your neighbourhood.
The shocking disappearance and murder of 9-year-old Frankie Jensen (left) in 1968 led to the creation of Block Parents later that same year. At its peak in the mid-1990s, the program boasted 500,000 participants, including the family of Ron and Alison Turpin of Toronto (right), seen here in 1996. (Sources of photos: (left) Ed Tubb/Toronto Star; (right) Toronto Star Photograph Archive, retrieved from Digital Archive Ontario)
The simple premise of London’s Block Parents initiative proved attractive and programs quickly sprang up in neighbouring cities and towns. “At the beginning, it was so easy to organize,” recalls Linda Patterson, national president of Block Parents for over 30 years, in an interview from her home in Oromocto, New Brunswick. “We were invited into schools to explain the program and were allowed to set up kiosks to hand out applications to parents.” The program went national in 1986 and at its peak in the early 1990s boasted 500,000 Block Parent homes with chapters in every province. Police were also enthusiastic supporters, with officers serving on both the national and provincial boards of the organization. “Then things changed,” she says.
Damned By Risk Assessment
As the 21st century dawned, stay-at-home moms went to work. Kids stopped walking to school. Cellphones replaced neighbourhood connections. And the attitude of police shifted from encouraging local ability to worrying about their legal liability. A 2006 RCMP risk assessment of Block Parents raised numerous safety issues that created substantial new burdens for the organization. Of particular concern was that a sexual predator might obtain a sign and use it to lure children. In response, the organization was required to recall all its old signs and issue new ones with serial numbers that were impossible to duplicate. Faced with this bother, many participants simply handed in their old sign and never got a new one.
The RCMP also wanted the organization to create an electronic database. “This was a program run by moms and aunts and uncles and grandparents at their kitchen table,” laments Patterson. Often, she explains, the only records were handwritten entries in a paper ledger; computerization was an impossible task for many organizers. “We lost hundreds of programs across the country because of this,” she says.
Then there were demands for tougher screening procedures. The new standard now requires biennial police checks for every member of a Block Parent household over the age of 12, with all the complications that entails. “We had Block Parents who were 75 or 80 years old and who had been in the program for 40 years. They weren’t going to get fingerprinted,” Patterson says. They quit instead. Police checks, she says sadly, “have been a deterrent for many.”
The loss of police support plus changing social habits proved devastating for Block Parents. Today, the program no longer exists in B.C. and has ceased operations in many other large and medium-sized cities across the country. The Toronto Police Service stopped supporting Block Parents in 2003. “The service believed the program was no longer sustainable in our community,” a spokesperson later told The Globe and Mail. In 2016 its founding chapter in London, Ontario closed. And in 2018 the national office in Barrie, Ontario was also shuttered. Membership bottomed out at 25,000 participants in 2013, although Patterson says it has since rebounded to 35,000 or 40,000, with strong pockets of support in Alberta and Quebec.
There is still demand for a community-based organization dedicated to protecting children, she argues. But it is increasingly difficult to maintain such a thing in the face of police disinterest and unrealistic security demands. “I get calls almost weekly from people who want to set up a new program,” Patterson explains. Quite often, these inquiries come in bunches and are spurred by stories of a mysterious van prowling a neighbourhood or some other local worry. “I’ll send them the all steps they need to go through to start one up,” she says. “And the first step is to check with local police to see if they’ll be supportive. Generally, I never hear back.” She adds, “police no longer support our program, and we can’t survive without them.”
As for all those concerns about the hidden threats of the program, Patterson points out there has never been a case of a child being lured with a purloined Block Parent sign. But, she readily admits, the stakes are high. “If it ever happened, it would probably be the end of our program.” For this reason, she has embraced all the demands for police checks and other safety measures as an obligatory burden, knowing full well the effect it has on prospective volunteers. “We have set ourselves up to be very strict,” she says. “We have to be. There are communities out there where if someone gets into trouble, they have nowhere to go.”
And so, Block Parents must lean into the very forces that are responsible for its own collapse as a national force. It is the same terrible irony that lies behind the reduction or destruction of innumerable other beneficial community-based programs, including my own experience with Strong Start. In the name of protecting children, we are shrinking and hardening their world, and leaving society as a whole much worse off. It may take a village to raise a child, but – to paraphrase another famous aphorism from the Vietnam War – we seem intent on destroying that village to keep it safe.
Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor of C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
Source of main image: Everett Collection.