I’m learning guitar. Recently I went to visit Alex, my tutor, and briefly overlapped with the student who was before me; he’s a pleasant young man of perhaps 10 years old. Also in the room was his father. He looked a bit glum. I assumed that this man was simply there, somewhat begrudgingly, to collect his son but Alex said that he routinely sits in for the duration of his son’s lessons. Apparently this is common practice amongst parents these days.
The parents of Alex’s students aren’t prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s not a paedophile. I was surprised by this initially, but then when I thought about it some more I was surprised that I had been surprised, because the risk of an abuser taking advantage of one’s child is now one that is impossible to take too seriously – for individual parents and government alike – and trumps all other considerations.
Modern psychiatric and psychoanalytical thinking has played a part in this. As ‘talking therapy’ has become increasingly popular so has the notion that the events and relationships of childhood are causative of subsequent problems. Such a vulnerable period will require careful marshalling and the exercising of a high index of suspicion. But as the vast majority of people are decent, the consequence is that young people will be wary of those in whom they should place trust and potential role models will be discouraged from entering professions where their probity will be doubted; primary school teachers are for instance now staffed predominantly by women. More prosaically, many more children will die from car crashes on the school run than would ever have been abducted.
This is not to say that there haven’t been some children who have suffered horribly and we have learnt about the failures of services charged with protecting vulnerable children through inquiries into what went wrong. The most recent of these were those of Victoria Climbié and Baby P. In both cases the authorities involved failed to act at crucial times and poor communication was exposed. Lord Laming’s report into the circumstances surrounding Victoria Climbié’s death stated that ‘the extent of the failure to protect Victoria was lamentable’. There had been ‘no fewer than 12 key occasions when the relevant services had the opportunity to successfully intervene in the life of Victoria’.
Something else Laming said is very instructive:
‘Tragically, it [a successful intervention in into Victoria’s life] required nothing more than basic good practice being put into operation. This never happened.’
Encouraging good basic practice is not something at which politicians excel, as they favour grander gestures. Under the policy heading of ‘Every Child Matters’ the Government has embarked on a mission to change the approach to child protection in the UK. It’s strikingly similar to the way they’ve sought to tackle the threat posed by terrorists: expensive, technically complex, intrusive, restrictive, superficially impressive, and ultimately of dubious value.
Just like Alex, everyone is under suspicion and even those with the most fleeting access to children. From November 2010 every adult who works with children will have to be registered with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). This includes teachers and paediatricians, but also casual volunteers, including any authors who may wish to visit a school to read their work. Last month Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy, said he would refuse to undergo these checks as he found them insulting.
“…we are teaching children, that the world is a dark and nasty place were everybody wants to murder and rape them. It assumes that the default position of one human being to another is predatory rather than kindness. It says to the very few people who are inclined to rape and murder children that they are no worse than anybody else, because they would do it too if they could.”
Worse, the ContactPoint Database will be a record of the details of the all the children in the UK under age of 18. It stands accused of being vulnerable to inappropriate access, and violating the principle of privacy in a free society. Its operation suggests that when it comes to access to personal information, the UK is two-tier as information about the children of ‘celebrities’ and MPs can be ‘shielded’. The price tag is £224million, which although put into shade by the billions already spent on the national identity scheme, is still a staggering amount of money.
Such databases and reorganisations do nothing to help parents decide on the appropriate level of supervision for their children or encourage a more sensible risk assessment. The events that these databases have been installed to prevent are so rare that their utility can never be established. Child abuse is commonest in failing families whose problems are caused, at least in part, by social inequality, an altogether tougher nut to crack and one to which the UK government has generally paid no more than lip service. London social work teams suffer from high staff turn over and are often demoralised. Social workers often carry massive case loads and their contact with the children with whose care they are charged can be sporadic. Why not start by taking Contactpoint’s £224 million making social work a better career?
Addendum 11 September 2009
About a quarter of adults are expected to have to sign up to the ISA, as anyone who regualarly transports children for sports or social clubs will face a £5000 fine could face prosecution if they do not.
Addendum 16 September 2009
Another invasion of liberty and only the Tories are alert – Jenni Russell CiF 16 September 2009