SAN MATEO — The child molester everyone fears could, perhaps, be here. Not scowling from the shadows. Not cruising in a van. But here.
Here, on the crisp baseball diamond at Martens Field, where rangy Little Leaguers run drills for their coaches. Here, on the playground of the Boys and Girls Club, where kids rocket off swings as a mother stands watch.
These places look wholesome. They probably are. Yet these days, who can tell? As one anxious mother put it: "There are many sick people around."
And so this quiet bayside city has enacted the first law in the nation ordering every volunteer who supervises children to submit to a criminal background check. The law--which took effect last month--requires nonprofit groups from the Pop Warner Football League to the YMCA to fingerprint all coaches, tutors and mentors who look after one or more children without another adult present.
"It sends a message to perpetrators," said Beth Salazar, executive director of the Peninsula Family YMCA, "that they will need to go somewhere else to get a kid to abuse."
Seductive as that sounds, San Mateo's child protection ordinance has generated a fair share of opposition. From the mayor to the president of a local Little League, critics have objected to the law on philosophical and practical grounds.
Underlying their criticism is a wounded, wistful question: Since when did good deeds and clean fun become so darn suspicious?
In San Mateo, it started with Richard Allen Davis.
A few weeks before he abducted and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas, Davis stayed for a time at a homeless shelter here. He didn't volunteer to coach girls soccer; he had nothing to do with youth activities. Still, parents panicked at the mere thought of such a monster in their city.
They drummed up 2,200 signatures on a petition urging their City Council to do something. The result: the child protection ordinance, which passed on a 3-2 vote after six months of tumultuous debate.
The winning refrains were simple and persuasive.
To those who questioned the law's effectiveness came this rejoinder: If it saves one child from trauma, it's worth it. Those mouthing off about privacy rights got this in response: If you have nothing to hide, why are you so worried?
As for those who griped about Big Brother paranoia tromping through all-American institutions--well, they got a talking-to about better safe than sorry.
And everywhere, the law's boosters echoed the words of proud, protective dad Ray Mellado, who coaches his son on the Cardinals Little League team. "I think it's fantastic," he said, unloading bats and gloves from his car before a recent practice. "We should have started something like this long ago."
Summing up the pro-ordinance argument, Connie Dennett, youth supervisor for the city parks department, said: "[Parents] place a tremendous amount of trust in the people who take care of their children. We need to do everything we can to make sure that trust is valid."
Critics of the law say it sets a distrustful tone that insults and demeans good-hearted volunteers. Anyone willing to spend six hours a week refereeing see-saw wars or teaching layups deserves commendation, not suspicion, they say.
San Mateo's law "seems an undue burden on people who were good in the first place to be volunteering at all," said Ron Marblestone, a father of three who coaches basketball and soccer and helps out with Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts.
"It sets up an adversarial relationship with the volunteers," said Linda Rosenthal, editor of the monthly San Francisco Peninsula Parent. "It's hard enough to get people involved in community events without putting obstacles in their way."
Critics also point out that most child abuse takes place in the home, out of reach of the ordinance.
San Mateo police investigated 58 cases of child molestation last year (compared with one homicide), but Capt. Edward Trucco said "hardly any" involved abuses by coaches or mentors.
"We've had cases involving Boy Scout leaders and cases involving child sports, but I'd say they're less than 1% [of the total] in San Mateo," Trucco said.
Given those statistics, Mayor Gary Yates said he could not sanction invading the privacy of 500 to 600 volunteers by opening them up to background checks. Opposing the ordinance was "like arguing against motherhood and apple pie," he said--but vote against it he did.
"When there's a clear and imminent danger, it's excusable to [ask citizens to] forgo some personal liberties," Yates said. "But not when there's just a chance, a chance in a million, that [a volunteer] might be a pervert and might want to do something with your children."
A parent himself, Yates said he makes a point of getting to know any adult who works with his children in school or clubs or on sports teams. "I don't think we should leave that job up to the government," he said. Especially, he added, because even the most thorough fingerprint program cannot possibly ferret out all the bad guys.