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Stafford case shouldn't make kids feel unsafe in their communities: experts

Tori Stafford’s horrific fate may be a graphic reminder to parents about the need to street-proof their children, but experts say it need not be a cautionary tale for the kids themselves.

The fatal attack on the eight-year-old was highly unusual, they said, since it was perpetrated by people believed to be strangers to the little girl.

Portraying Tori’s fateful encounter with Michael Rafferty and Terri-Lynne McClintic as the norm, they argue, would make kids needlessly fearful of interactions that are part of any healthy childhood.

Alyson Schafer, a Toronto psychotherapist and mother of two teenage girls, concedes most parents struggle to maintain the delicate balance between raising awareness and instilling fear.

The disturbing details of the Stafford case — which included allegations of luring, sexual assault and a savage beating — were very likely to fan the flames of parental anxiety, she said.

“Our imagination of how horrible that must have been creates such a fear in us that it’s our natural tendency to want to protect our kids,” Schafer said in a telephone interview. “And yet we have this fine line where, in educating them, we don’t want to blacken their world view. . . We want them to experience life and the freedom to make friends with people in our neighbourhoods.”

When news headlines trumpet gruesome details of violence against children, such as those that emerged from the London, Ont. courtroom where Rafferty was tried for murder, Schafer said it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most attacks are perpetrated by people who are known to the victims.

Schafer said her own approach to street-proofing her daughters consisted of reassuring them that they were safe in their community, then laying down ground rules to make sure they stayed that way.

Tracey Warren, director of Child Safe Canada, agrees. The best approach for parents to take, she said, is to teach children to recognize dangerous situations rather than mistrust people.

When such situations arise, Warren said children should have recourse to a couple of simple rules that will keep them out of harm’s way.

Whether invited by a stranger to come see a puppy, as Tori allegedly was, or approached by a long-time acquaintance, Warren said children should always exercise the golden rule of street safety.

“Don’t go anywhere with anyone without permission,” Warren said. “When we teach our children that safety rule, . . . What it does it encapsulates all of predators’ tricks.”

That message — along with cautions to draw attention to themselves if they feel threatened — should be taught to children at a young age and frequently reiterated as they age, Warren said.

Parents have no need to elaborate on the potentially devastating consequences of violating those rules, Warren said, adding general cautions and clear guidelines are often enough to keep children in line.

Schafer said such an approach served her kids well, adding devices like a password known only to trusted adults may also help ward off danger.

The goal, she said, is to give children tools to operate safely in the wider community without fearing that a predator lurks around every corner.

“We want them to have lemonade stands and we want them to have newspaper routes and we want them to dog walk and be out in the community, because that’s actually one of the best safety nets,” Schafer said. “. . . Mostly the world is good. We just don’t talk much about that anymore.”