Unnecessary hypervigilance in parks: no unaccompanied adults!

No adults without children!

I think that sign came from England. Here in the States, we have the similar sign but in picture form—a lone adult with a circle around him and a slash through his chest, or something similar. It’s meaning is clear. Do not enter this park unless you have a child with you!

Are the authorities who placed these signs worried that adults cannot properly operate playground equipment without the expert help of a pre-teen? Sort of like how many parents rely on their kids to reboot their computers for them?

No, obviously not. The signs are put there because of the sincere belief that any unaccompanied adult who is in the area of children might be a child molester.

Yes! A child molester!

And—here’s where I throw in the twist—the authorities are right! They have made a statement that is logically true. Unaccompanied adults might be child molesters!

They also might be aliens from Mars disguised as humans. They might be anything, they even might not be child molesters.

The only reason to ban unaccompanied adults is if you have estimated the probability that these folks are evil is high. Is it? Are the authorities banning the right people?

For years, I have figured that most child abuse occurs at the hands of people known to the children. That is, parents, babysitters, aunts and uncles, trusted family friends and so forth. Just the sort of people who will legitimately accompany the children to the playgrounds. But I was too lazy to look up the statistics, nor did I know where to start. Thankfully, Mary Jackson over at PajamasMedia.com did it for me.

Jackson found the government report Child Maltreatment, which investigates the matter in all its depressing detail. Chapter 5 contains the statistics, summed up in this picture:
Breakdown of who maltreats kids

Much as I hate pie charts, we can at least read this one. It says what we might have figured: Parents account for 80% of abuse cases. Other trusted adults make up another 13% or so. The key number is that only 4% of cases are “Other”, those unaccompanied adults lurking in parks. Incidentally, “57.8 percent of the perpetrators were women”, which probably is not the ratio you expected.

If you want to be sarcastic (and I do), you can say the authorities have done the exact opposite of what they should do if their sole interest was in protecting the kids. Since, the vast majority of kids who will be abused will be so abused by the very people bringing them into the park, the authorities should not allow any person known to the child to enter the playground, and they instead should grab strangers off the street to make sure they don’t break their neck on the monkey bars (if they still have those dangerous, life-threatening devices, and if they are still called by that vaguely politically incorrect name).

Of course, protecting kids was not the sole interest the authorities had in mind when they created their rule. Mollifying paranoid parents also figured highly. The fact that some people just like to be around kids—even stating that sounds creepy to our modern ears—is nothing next to the fear of the worst that can happen.

Don’t get me wrong. My idea of appropriate punishment for people who do abuse kids runs along medieval lines; at the very least in my scheme, convicted molesters would never again see the light of day.

But wrong or misapplied protection rules give a false sense of security. You figure to yourself, ‘Well, I’ve banned this or that. Now I don’t have to worry.” If you’re banning the wrong thing, then you are doing double the harm. You’re missing the real threat and letting your guard down at the same time. For example, to get through the gate of airport security requires at least two people checking to see if you have a ticket in your name. This is silly because any hijacker need merely buy a ticket—just as those on 9/11 did. Checking a ticket buys you nothing but false security (and it unnecessarily increases costs and creates delays).

It’s the case, here, too. If a stranger is intent on, say, abducting a child, a sign banning him from doing so is not going to stop him. But since that sign is there, the adults watching the kids might be a little less careful since they have figured no evil person will bypass the sacrosanct placard. The only thing the warning will do is stop kindly old ladies from sitting peacefully, enjoying the sounds of kids at play.

Caveats: in the government report, they do not break down the relationship of the child by type of abuse. The largest form of abuse (61%) is neglect; just under 8% is sexual abuse. In 2005, there were about 67,000 cases of sexual abuse. According to the US Census, about 80.4 million people are 19 or younger; 60.2 million 14 or younger. This makes the rate of sexual abuse around 8 kids under 20 in every 10,000; or about 0.08%: or about 1 kids under 15 in every 1,000, which is 0.1%,. Thankfully, a very small number. If the relationship breakdowns in Chapter 5 also hold for sexual abuse, then sexual abuse by strangers occurred at a rate around 3 kids under 20 out of every 100,000, or 0.003%: or 4 kids under 15 out of every 100,000, or 0.0004%. In other words, the signs and laws banning unaccompanied adults at best are doing very, very little.


  1. Joy

    Here’s an example as in many examples in health/ health and safety, where authorities concern themselves with the possibility of being sued and place this at a higher level of importance than the public’s quality of life and peace of mind.
    It was once explained to me that cases of child abduction are unchanged since the seventies, at least. When I was little we used to “play out” on our bikes, This is a rare site now. The public is far more knowing about Paedophiles, which is obviously a good thing, but there is a negative aspect in that some trust is inevitably lost.
    An infant school teacher once said, on her retirement, that the profession had changed so much. She worked in a school where some of the children came to school from unhappy homes. For some of them really were neglected. She was not allowed to cuddle them if they cried or hurt themselves, not even a pat on the shoulder; very sad in my view.
    Esther Rantzen who set up child line recently spoke out about this sort of thing. She was herself warned at a public event for congratulating a child with either a hug or a kiss.
    This sort of hyper-vigilance / neurosis was never her intention.

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  3. Sign Sign everywhere a sign
    Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
    Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign

    I believe that children should be raised by their grandparents. What do the the parents know? They never did it before. The grandparents at least have some experience. They are less likely to make the same mistakes twice, given that they can see how their kids turned out.

  4. ad

    A classic case of abuse by statistics. I think the appropriate comparison here would be: in public places such as parks, shopping malls, toilets, what percentage of abuse-incidents are by people known to the child compared to total strangers. I think you would find a different outcome.

  5. Ari


    Yes, it’s probably true that most abuse in parks is due to strangers, but… so what? That doesn’t mean that a sign is going to stop it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that most cases of abuse are happening in public places anyway. If the child IS being abused, then it’s probably SAFER in public, assuming that 90-something percent of abusers are relatives.

  6. My ex-husband was accused of being a child molester by complete strangers. Why? Because he went to the park nearest where he then lived, alone. (No, it did not have one of these silly signs.) Took a walk. Got, apparently, a bit too close to a subdivision bordering the park (the other side of a drainage ditch from it). So this couple came out of the subdivision and went off on him. They followed him back to the park not directly after, but followed soon enough) and started asking other people at the park if they’d seen him.

    Mind you, at the time he was wearing his work clothes, the uniform of probably the biggest pluming company in the US, including name tag. He’d driven to the park in his work van, which has the company’s name on it in foot-high letters. He was not exactly unobtrusive, in other words. One would hope that any pedophile would at least have the sense to not make himself so easy to locate.

  7. Briggs


    Abuse? Not really. It’s not clear, as Ari suggests, that most, say, sexual abuse in parks is by strangers. This is an assumption on your part, and no hints to its correctness are given in the original report, as I said.

    It might be a pleasant assumption, but I can equally imagine assumptions that make my argument hold. For example, I imagine most sexual abuse happens when nobody else is looking, and public parks can be, of course, busy places with plenty of people looking.

    Your other suppositions of shopping malls, toilets, etc. are more plausible.


    Unfortunately, this is one of those areas in which “the seriousness of the charges” outweighs most other forms of evidence, including innocence.

    I’m also sad to see that this probably happened in San Antonio, one of my favorite places on Earth. (I encourage people to read Sabra’s blog; click her name or read this post.)

  8. DerekP


    Thereby depriving those parents of the experience that will turn them into better grandparents. You’d have the same phenomenon in a generation because you would have a set of grandparents who didn’t know what they were doing through lack of experience. It’s just like how this country keeps moving the line where a kid becomes an adult. 18 is now considered by some not old enough because 18 and 19 year olds are out there making stupid mistakes. The thing they fail to realize is that stupid mistakes are normal and necessary for growth.

    Why are we afraid to make mistakes and learn from them? Your first born is bound to turn out just slightly neurotic because you were the same way raising them. You didn’t know what to do half the time. Then the rest of the kids come a little easier for that experience.

    Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from bad decisions. Take away someone’s power to make bad decisions, and you forever throw away the chance at experience and later good decisions on their part.

    Back to the subject of the post, I have a 6 year old daughter who is in girl scouts. As her father, I do tend to participate in some things with the troop, such as cookie sales. The troop set up a booth at the mall, and I was there with my daughter and the other girls, the troop leader, my fiancee and some other mothers. Not exactly unsupervised. I decided after a while to take a walk around the mall and do some christmas shopping. When I came back the troop leader was laughing.. I asked her what was so funny, and she told me that as soon as I left, this man came up to the booth and asked her what I was doing back there and talking about how that was suspicious and she shouldn’t have let me back there.

    This attitude that every man is a potential child molester is ridiculous. It puts pressure on me not to even participate in my own child’s life for fear of being labeled “suspicious”, and then we wonder why fathers aren’t invovled!

    Sorry about the rant, but this one touched a few of my nerves!

  9. Dan

    I agree with your basic sentiment that there is a disproportionate and misplaced fear of paedophiles in society today, and as you say, most abuse happens in the home or by someone known to the child.

    However, like the over-vigilant parents in the playground glaring at any single male without an immediately obvious child in their care, you are jumping to conclusions because of similar thought patterns about this sign.

    I live in south london, where these signs have appeared around some playgrounds over the last several years. As far as I know though, it has nothing at all to do with the issues you are attributing to the sign.

    10+ years ago, a lot of children’s playgrounds in the area where vandalised dumps mainly used by junkies, and teenagers looking for somewhere to hang out and drink. No parent would ever take their kid there. Since then, there has been a lot of money pumped into the local environment, including renovated playgrounds, as well as new or reopened youth centers and sports areas, landscape gardening and renovated flats, shutting down houses used for dealing etc etc

    These signs are part of a much larger initiative, trying to reclaim the playgrounds for kids rather than junkies and drunk kids. You seem as quick as some others though, when it comes to jumping to conclusions about people’s suspect motivations.

  10. Matt

    Talk about degrees of freedom. I followed the link to Sabra and thence. In a very short time I was viewing nude piccys of a model with arms in her hand.

    Mind how you go there in cyber space – might get a mixed message or two with links.


    Harry G

    PS still cool down under at the moment

  11. Briggs


    You’re a better—or luckier—man than me. I couldn’t find what you did.

    Cold here, too.

  12. JH

    Some of us grew up playing outside all day, and only went home when we got hungry or when it became dark. Time has changed.

  13. JA

    if the purpose of the sign is to reduce loitering in public parks, wouldn’t a nice “No Loitering” sign have done the trick?

  14. Patrick Hadley

    Although there may be signs like that in England, that style of lettering is not used much in this country.


    The sign in that photo in San Fancisco (which is not on exactly the same background as the one in your article) is restricting access to a small enclosed children’s playground, an area with climbing equipment, jungle-gyms, swings etc. It seems that unaccompanied adults are not excluded from the rest of the park, just the play-area.

    In England we do sometimes have signs saying that children over the age of 14 should not use those areas, because they are too big for the apparatus, unlikely to want use it properly, and groups of teenagers can spoil the fun of the younger children.

  15. DerekP – I was being facetious in a weak attempt at humor. As you point out, every generation has to do parenting or the skill will be lost. Also, this is the teasing line I use on my son and daughter-in-law regarding my grandson, in order to inflict worry on them, I suppose. You don’t know what it means to worry until you are a parent.

    But there is some truth to the proposition, in that the nuclear family sans grandparents is less skillful at raising kids, in general, than the extended family. Our disambiguated society is deficient in that way, and the incidence of child abuse (and the paranoia about it) is symptomatic of the loss of traditional whole-family parenting skills.

    Your own tale of isolation and accusation is a good example. If some aunts, uncles, and a grandma or two had been there, the presence/absence of the dad would not have caused concern. But we have lost the communal extended family and replaced it with parenting by strangers.

    The famous line, “it takes a village to raise a child,” is nonsense; it takes a family. Further, it most certainly does not take a metropolis, a state, or an intrusive government.

  16. dearieme

    “CPC653G”: I’m not used to that sort of code at the bottom of signs in England, but that may reflect the fact that I stopped reading signs some years ago. They have become offensively intrusive; I’d trust my own judgement rather than the insolent advice of some jobsworth.

  17. Haha that’s a great sign, they should have that at disney in more places.

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