A few days ago, there was a small incident near where I live. An 8-year-old boy got lost and wandered around the area, went missing for the night - 12 hours - but was eventually found by searchers the next morning, unharmed but cold. He had just left his home in Helsinki riding a kickbike, didn't know where he ended up, and kept going through the night until he was found at 5 AM near where I live.
This was remarkable because it was not in the woods somewhere out in the forests - of which there are plenty in Finland - but the boy left off from Pitäjänmäki, a relatively dense urban/suburban area in western Helsinki; he wandered right through Leppävaara, an area with about 60 000 people living in the proximity, and ended up next to a major hospital.
How is this possible? It is a sad thought: a boy is lost in town. He walks past well-to-do suburbs, he passes a thousand front doors of homes. The night gets colder. He doesn't stop to knock or ring the doorbell at any one of them. Every single one of them would have, once opened, had people who would have realized that here is a child in distress, and people would have called immediately the boy's parents, offered him a mug of hot chocolate or whatever he needs, and if necessary, given him a ride home.
But the boy did not ring a doorbell. He just kept wandering in the wrong direction, for twelve hours, and his parents and relatives panicked. They called the police, search parties were arranged, the family patrolled the area, a helicopter was called to search. Why did the boy go on alone?
Perhaps he was a bit autistic or something similar, or just shy - not an unusual condition. That could explain this partially. But I think he was afraid. He has probably been told that he must not talk to strangers. Strangers could kidnap him. Strangers could molest or abuse him. Children are taught to avoid strangers.
But that is quite wrong. Almost all people, when they meet a child in distress, try to help. The kidnappers and other wrong-doers are really, really rare. But still children are taught to assume the worst of strangers. Even in extremely safe societies with strong social cohesion such as Finland.
That is so wrong. But unfortunately, we'll get more of the same. MLL (Mannerheim's Child Protection Association, a quango) wants every volunteer who deals with children to be vetted and background-checked and the Ministry of Justice agrees.
This is a bad, bad idea. It is already hard enough to get people to work for free for common good with things like sports clubs etc. If I have to pay and get a vetting license to prove that I am not a child molester in order to take my child's friends in my car to a football game, it's both an inconvenience and an insult. I don't have to take it. It means I don't do this for the sports club. So we need more tax-funded workers to arrange things for the kids - when in reality, the biggest risk and problem is that there are not enough adults who do things with children, their own children and those of others.
There are occasionally cases where children are really abused. But vetting doesn't necessarily help. The most notorious of cases of violence against children was that of 8-year-old Eerika, who was tortured and eventually suffocated by her father and stepmother. How was it possible? It happened because the step-mother worked at the child protection services herself. The profession couldn't help because it couldn't see wrong in one of its own. Wrapping up a child in a carpet was an approved method of therapy. Therapy which happened to kill the girl.
What we should do is not to have more vetting and bureaucracy and licenses. What we need is that people care, and speak out when they see trouble. We also need that people don't hesitate to care because they're afraid of misunderstandings. That they help a child who is lost, instead of thinking "this belongs to the authorities, and I could be perceived a potential child molester if I ask a kid whether he or she is all right".
So, we don't need more vetting. We need less fear and doubt.