I have recently returned from an international conference on children and the law. While there, I attended a number of presentations on child maltreatment and child sexual abuse. I also got my fix of the English newspapers while killing time at Heathrow Airport. This post is an attempt to reconcile the two sources of information.

All will be aware of the relentless drive by officialdom to eliminate "risk" to children by requiring those working with children to be checked or vetted. Seemingly ridiculous requirements such as the banning of all spectators from school sports days, or a ban on parents taking pictures of the children at kindergarten graduation regularly appear in the newspapers. While the practice in New Zealand appears to be only to require a Police records check (still commonly known as a Wanganui computer check, revealing convictions and pending charges) for those who volunteer or work with children, other jurisdictions have considerably more onerous requirements. The United Kingdom's Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, is as Catherine Bennett beautifully puts it, is "a law that now requires every adult who engages, even fleetingly, with children to prove they are not a pervert, and to pay for this privilege where possible" (Observer, 20/9/09).

From a legal perspective, there are real concerns about the operation and underlying principles of such schemes. While undoubtedly it is vital that those who have convictions for violent and sexual offending are excluded from working with children, the remit appears to have shifted from barring those with convictions to a much wider net. For instance, the newly established UK Independent Safeguarding Authority has as their motto "Our aim is to help prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults" (my emphasis).

I spent yesterday afternoon reading the Northern Ireland guidance document on vetting procedures worryingly entitled "Sharing to Safeguard: Information sharing about individuals who may pose a risk to children (my emphasis)".This guide helpfully points out that "maintaining a focus on only those who have been charged or convicted, for example, of an offence listed at Schedule 1 of the Children and Young Person Act (1968) can be unhelpful, as it often defines the individual by their offending history, rather than determining what are the ongoing risks the individual may pose to a child/children" (Circular HSS CC 3/96(Revised), p1). Further, at page 5 the guide defines "potentially dangerous person (PDP)" as "someone who has been interviewed by the police for an alleged or suspected sexual or violent offence against a child, or a serious sexual assault on an adult, or violent offence against a vulnerable adult and a case has been referred to the Public Prosecution Service for a prosecution decision (my emphasis)"


Innocent until proven guilty seems to have lost all meaning. It appears as if one could ruin another's career simply by making a false allegation of sexual abuse.


But that is simply legalistic argument.

What is altogether more concerning is that from an empirical perspective, there is no clear evidence that these vetting programmes actually reduce harm to children. The cliché that it is more dangerous in statistical terms to be in the family home rather than in a room with complete strangers has merit. An examination of the case studies or sentencing reports on child maltreatment and sexual abuse demonstrate that the perpetrators are almost certain to be related to, or co-habiting with, the child victim, and thus will not be affected by the vetting net.

Further, experts such as Professor Gary Melton are increasingly coming to the view that rather than treating all adults as potential abusers, the more adults that are involved in a child's life, the chances of the child being maltreated or abused are reduced. This makes sense. Think back to the cases of egregious child abuse in New Zealand. A common thread is isolation: not knowing the neighbours, moving address frequently, not being enrolled in childcare or school and so on. At the conference, Professor Melton shared a wonderful anecdote about a town in the United States which focused on using firemen to engage isolated children and families in a deprived community. Firemen, he reminded us, are universally respected in the community and have lots of downtime. The town received Homeland Security funding to build a new fire station. They asked the architect to build a long glass porch so that the firemen could sit out the front, and furnished it with child size rocking chairs, thus encouraging children to congregate. This, and other similar initiatives, had a measured effect in strengthening community ties and a consequent reduction in child maltreatment and neglect in the district. I wonder what the Independent Safeguarding authority would have thought of un-vetted adults interacting with children!

Above all, there are real fears that viewing all adults as potential abusers may result in what Henry Porter has termed "a toxic culture of suspicion" (Observer 19/07/09), thus depriving children of valuable experiences and learning opportunities.


Nessa Lynch

24 September



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