A Touchy Subject Worrying that innocent hugs will be seen as something else

September 11, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

A story in last weekend's Saturday section on reactions to publicity surrounding sexual abuse misstated the actions of Gail Willie, a volunteer nurse at a 4-H camp. She does hug children, even though it is the policy of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service to discourage hugging among counselors and program participants in most instances.

The Sun regrets the error.

Tabloid headlines and the buzz of radio and TV talk shows can make sexual abuse of children seem like an epidemic. While the publicity has led to child-care reforms and increased recognition of the signs of abuse, it has also made people anxious about how others perceive their dealings with children.

That was the consensus of dozens of responses telephoned to SUNDIAL, The Sun's information service. Among the concerned:

* Howard County nurse Gail Willie, who volunteers at a 4-H summer camp, says she will not give first aid to a youngster unless the door to her office is open. She no longer hugs homesick children for fear the gesture would be misconstrued.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

* Charles E. Roberts of Baltimore hesitates to pick up his young nieces and nephews.

* Deanie Garcia of White Marsh was shocked to hear her 11-year-old son confess he thought he might have touched his baby brother inappropriately when he was holding him in the swimming pool.

* Deborah London, dance instructor and director of the Cultural Arts Institute at St. Mary's School, worries that fear of abuse will -- force change in her small performing arts school.

"I've been Miss Debbie for over 40 years," she says. "Does this mean that I can't hug the kids that I've been hugging from kindergarten all the way up to the eighth grade? We also teach dance and you have to touch certain parts of the body to straighten up the shoulders and things like that . . . This makes you feel paranoid."

"What fascinates me is why there's this sudden terror," says Gloria Goldfaden, founder and executive director of People Against Child Abuse, Inc., the Maryland chapter of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.

"I don't think a lot of people have this concern [about their physical dealings with children]. I go to all kinds of meetings and conferences, and every now and then there will be one person who asks me if something qualifies as sexual abuse. The people I talk to say, 'Why is this thing blown out of proportion? An alien knows the difference between molestation and a hug.' Why are we even talking about this when child abuse is rampant?"

However, Vermont psychologist Jules Older, a man who has taught thousands of physicians and therapists how to use touch in the practice of healing, says many adults feel anxious that their relationships with children could be misinterpreted -- including himself.

"We recently had a big family gathering and my 5-year-old niece wanted me to play a crazy game she had invented in one room while all the other people were in the other room. And I wondered, 'Is this going to look funny to someone?' " recalls the Baltimore native.

"I think it's a rare adult who gets turned on by a 5-year-old, a really rare adult. But if all this [talk] is around you so much, it almost follows that you're going to worry about it."

Lack of affection

Dr. Older worries about the affection children may be missing because of adult fears.

"Teachers have become very reluctant to put a hand on a kid's shoulder," he says. "I believe that kids thrive on physical love, that it's built into the species. When people describe the human condition, they frequently forget that we are mammals, first and foremost. And like most mammalian species, we require touch -- if not to survive, then to thrive."

The specter of being accused of child abuse -- both sexual and corporal -- has changed the way teachers are being instructed, says Toni Ungaretti, chairman of teacher development and leadership in the division of education of the School of Continuing Education at Johns Hopkins University.

"Many people enter this field because they love children and they enjoy being with them. Or because they love a subject and want to share it with young people," she says. "We now spend more time dealing with legal issues and trying to help prospective teachers know that they put themselves at risk in their jobs every day."

Teachers are taught to keep the classroom door open when helping students after school. They also learn to avoid physical contact with them.

"We don't say, 'Don't touch anybody.' But any time you make any physical contact with someone, you put yourself at risk," says Ms. Ungaretti. "It's a fine line because you're talking about nurturing people and supporting them. And many people who are in the process of working with students will hold their hand, will pat them on the back, will make them feel they're OK.

"We caution them to use common sense about establishing relationships, to keep in mind that anyone can sue you for anything."

The hands-off approach

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