Must Hugging A Child Be A High-Risk Act?

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ONE of the more memorable bumper stickers of the mid-1980s posed a strangely personal question: ''Have you hugged your child today?''

The message carried a slightly self-righteous, accusatory tone, as if parents needed a strip of paper on a stranger's car to remind them to show affection to their children.

So silly was the question, in fact, that it soon inspired parodies, such as ''Have you hugged your cat [or dog] today?''

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These days pets may be the only living beings still considered safe to hug. In an age when fears of being falsely accused of child abuse run rampant, the old bumper-sticker question needs to be updated as a warning: ''If you hug a child today, make sure it's your own.''

Consider the case of Donna Jones, who until last week worked as a cafeteria supervisor at Schafer Park Elementary School in Hayward, Calif. For three years, Ms. Jones routinely hugged students she knew. But then two parents complained, prompting the principal to tell school employees they could no longer hug the children.

Dismayed, Jones quit her job. Now she visits the school in the afternoon, dispensing hugs on her own time.

Given the current climate of suspicion, the principal probably had no choice but to issue his no-hugs policy. Nor are schools the only institutions forced to take such precautions. As summer camps gear up for another season, directors must spend time teaching new staff members about proper conduct with children.

Pat Hammond, associate director of standards for the American Camping Association, acknowledges that camps are ''very definitely concerned'' about appropriate behavior. Through workshops and articles in its publications, the association suggests policies and codes of conduct that leave no room for misinterpretation or accusation.

''We try to encourage a caring environment, so there's lots of hugging that still goes on in camps,'' Ms. Hammond says. But other practices have had to change.

She cites an example. ''A typical job at camp is helping to supervise showers,'' she says. ''Many camps now have a policy that requires not just one person [supervising] but two. People didn't have to be so concerned about that in the past.''

Nor did they have to be so concerned about casual touching. Now one of the most common guidelines, Hammond says, states that it's inappropriate to touch a camper anywhere a swim suit touches a child's body. ''And chances are it wouldn't be appropriate to have a child sit on an adult's lap, although with very young children that's probably still acceptable.''

Abuse does occur, and allegations of mistreatment must be taken seriously. But where will the climate of fear, suspicion, and distrust end, so that one person's innocent act doesn't become another person's lawsuit?

Mercifully, the mood of the country is shifting from the witch-hunt mentality that pervaded the mid- and late-80s, when nearly 20 cases of alleged child abuse at day-care centers captured headlines and struck terror in the hearts of parents across the country. Many of those cases failed to produce convictions, among them the McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles, which lasted 6-1/2 years. Other verdicts were overturned on appeal, including the case of Kelly Michaels, a nursery-school teacher in New Jersey who spent five years in prison on charges of abusing 19 children.

Parents face a difficult task: how to instill in children a proper wariness about strangers without making them fear sinister motives in every spontaneous act of caring from people they know.

Against dangers that are far from imaginary, the new safeguards must remain in place. But for the sake of both children and their caregivers, can enough lost innocence be restored so that a grade-school lunch lady dares to put an arm around a 7-year-old without worrying about committing a federal offense?

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