In a nation where milk cartons wear pictures of missing children, straight talk about child abuse is vital. But, how far should we go in telling our children what dangers threaten them?
"How to Raise a Street-Smart Child," a frank documentary debuting Sunday at 10 p.m. on Home Box Office, takes the position that knowledge is the best weapon children can have against adult victimization.
Based on Grace Hechinger's book of the same name, it's a powerful presentation of a subject difficult for many of us to face.
"The statistics are staggering," says "Hill Street Blues' " Daniel J. Travanti, who hosts the program.
According to the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, "in corroboration with the FBI," each year in the United States, 200 bodies of children are never identified, thousands of children are abducted and an estimated 200,000 cases of child sexual abuse are reported. Law enforcement authorities say most abuse cases are not reported.
John Walsh, appearing on the program with Travanti, became an avid children's rights activist after his 6-year-old son Adam was abducted and murdered in 1981. Walsh's efforts led to the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Travanti portrayed Walsh in TV movies about Adam.
Walsh has a blunt answer for those who question the necessity of scaring children with statistics: "I would rather have (my children) scared than go to the morgue and identify their body."
During the program, we hear children, admonished so often to beware of strangers, describe on camera what they think a stranger is: a cartoonishly menacing figure, mean and ugly.
We're shown the reality--photographs of child-molesters: pleasant-looking teachers, counselors and businessmen.
One offender, currently in prison, describes dispassionately how molesters rarely use force. Instead, they look for children who appear unhappy and bored, and offer affection and attention in order to victimize them.
Though the first half of the program deals with victimization by strangers, the point is made that in the majority of abuse cases, someone the child knows--a friend of the family or a relative--is the abuser.
Thus, children who know the difference between "good touch" and "bad touch," who feel comfortable with their bodies and who have been given permission to say "no" to an adult who makes them feel uncomfortable, are less apt to become victims.
The program warns beforehand that very young children could be alarmed by its content and suggests that they view it with a "responsible adult." Even that safeguard is questionable. Parents may want to see the documentay with older children, and pass on the information to their youngest.
The melodramatic mood music punctuating some sequences of the program is unnecessary, but the expert check-list advice it offers is a public service.
HBO will show "How to Raise a Street-Smart Child" again at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with daytime showings March 14, 18, 23, 26 and 29.