Friday, September 11, 2009

Keeping my child safe - an over-anxious mum writes

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I remember the first time the responsibilities of parenthood knocked me for six. It was when the midwife came to my house for a late pregnancy check and to get me to do my birth plan. The poor woman was subjected to the 2 pages of typed A4 that I had already produced. She then asked me if I wanted the baby to be given Vitamin K as I intended to breastfeed, to prevent haemorrhagic disease of the newborn, and if so, did I want it given by injection or orally. Now, I'd been very careful about what I ate during my pregnancy - I still try to put down my daughter's academic talents to the fact that I consumed a lifetime's supply of Omega 3 in those short months. This, by the way, was not deliberate - I craved sardines - but the vitamin K question was a whole new ball game. For the first time, I actually had to make a decision which would directly affect her and it scared the living daylights out of me.

The issue was resolved in the end after lots of research on my part and discussion with my husband, but the incident gave me my first real dose of maternal anxiety.

I am naturally a great worrier. A temperature or an off sounding cough from my daughter is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Last night, she went off on her new(ish) bike with her friends for the first time - only for a little while, and literally yards away, but I was at home climbing the walls. My current obsession is whether the rabbits are warm enough at night, despite two separate things to insulate their hutch (using NASA technology, apparently, which will be why it was so expensive) and it's barely September. By Christmas, they'll probably be in my bed:-)

So it's such a relief that the Government is introducing a scheme that'll ensure that nobody who ever comes into contact with my daughter will ever do her harm, isn't it?

Well, err, actually, no. I despair of it, in fact.

Along with the overwhelming burden of parental responsibility comes a huge great big long list of worst nightmares. We can all remember the names of the children who have been murdered in horrific circumstances and the thought of any child, let alone my own, going through that sort of ordeal is almost unbearable. The fact that we can remember virtually all of those children's names shows, thankfully, that this is a very rare occurrence.

I think we tend to react very emotionally, and instinctively when we think of these things that could happen, so I can see why some people might think that it's a good thing that anyone who has close contact with children, regularly, should register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority and if those working for that body should deem there is sufficient cause for concern, then that person could be banned from working with children.

The idea is that Ian Huntley, the man responsible for the Soham murders, would have been caught out by this new register because his previous charges or complaints against him would have come to light. But what if he had been identified and removed from the school premises? He'd still have lived somewhere and perhaps on another day a combination of circumstances would have presented him with the opportunity to kill random children he came into contact with.

So that's one major flaw with the new system - it may well not work and, what may be worse, it might lull parents into a false sense of security. The ISA register is based on the premise, gathered on many years of research (why, isn't it obvious?) that those who would harm children get themselves into positions where they can work closely with children. This Register is going to weed them out. But, hang on, teachers are already vetted to within an inch of their lives and very occasionally you read about one who has formed an inappropriate or abusive relationship with a pupil.

The blanket assumption that the person who drives the minibus for a youth club or the parent who helps at Brownies is in some way doing so for unscrupulous motives is highly insulting. Not only that, but how often would that person ever get to be in a situation where they'd be a danger to a child, even if they did have those sorts of motives.

Despite being the world's greatest worrier, I don't subscribe to the idea that there's a paedophile behind every tree waiting to harm my child. We've become obsessed with protecting children from a risk from strangers that pretty much isn't there. We've got all scared about taking photos of children. I remember how we were all stopped from taking photos at my daughter's last nursery sports day because of concerns - yet anyone in any of the houses opposite with malicious intent would have been able to take as many photos as they liked of the children as they ran their races. I'm angry that I lost the chance to record an important event in my child's life because of groundless panic inducing nanny state nonsense.

That was nothing compared to the hullaballoo

Anyway, I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that the Government (and although this only applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at the moment, Scotland will get its own version soon and I can't imagine for a minute it'll be much different knowing the illiberal SNP mindset)is bringing in a system which may not work, and, worse, may actually penalise the innocent.

By targeting every single one of us who works regularly with children, they create a guilty until proven innocent situation which is in direct conflict with everything our legal system has been built on. I am far more worried by this new system and its ability to ruin the reputations of innocent people than I ever was by the prospect of my daughter coming into harm at Brownies, or Swimming, or Drama, or the Dentist.

Let's look at how the ISA will make up their minds:

Applicants will be assessed using data gathered by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) (link opens in new window), including relevant criminal convictions, cautions, police intelligence and other appropriate sources.

Using this information we will decide on a case-by-case basis whether each person is suited to this work. Other appropriate sources? Gossip? Even Esther Rantzen, who set up Childline, has misgivings about the system, linked to in the article above.

"...Ms Rantzen said the whole population was being "blanketed with this extraordinary suspicion that they might be a danger to children."

She told the BBC she was also worried that the checks might "take account of rumour, gossip, unfounded allegations which may be recorded on the police computer."

If they're going to listen to rumour and gossip, then there is definitely potential for somebody's reputation being ruined completely wrongly.

I can see a situation where a man in his mid 30s, driving the minibus for his daughters' hockey team, could be barred from so doing because 20 years ago he got his couple of months' younger girlfriend pregnant when he was 16 and she was still 15and her parents complained to the Police. That would be a ridiculous overreaction but one, sadly, that could happen.

My view of the world is that people are generally good, and that's the view I want my daughter to grow up with. I don't want her to fear that every adult she comes into contact with because the State has decreed that they are worthy of suspicion until proved otherwise.

My daughter is statistically at much greater risk from being run over, particularly when she's out on her bike than she is of being harmed while at any of her activities. Does that mean we should ban cars and bikes? Of course not. Does it mean I should keep her in and encourage her to play on the Play Station rather than go climbing trees in the wood? No way. In our house it's her who tells us off for spending too much time on the computer.

It makes me angry that the Government has wasted money to bring in an illiberal, ineffective system that points the finger at all of us. Most children who are harmed face the danger in their own homes from people they know and perhaps if the resources that have gone into this register had been given to bolster up social services departments, you might have less of that going on.

It annoys me that they spend millions on this when children are suffering long term damage to their health and life chances by being brought up in poor, substandard housing with damp walls, holes in the floor, maybe no electricity because it's been cut off, or no heating. They might even be in a homeless hostel with their family. A Government that actually does something about that scandal will be worthy of all our respect.

I've heard the phrase "if it saves just one child" too often today and its evil twin "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" will be rolled out as well. I'm glad to see that Chris Huhne for the Lib Dems has expressed his concerns about this system and I hope that he's listened to. I get really concerned by the idea that whole groups of people can be demonised. We see it all the time with young people, and now it's anybody who wants to make their lives fun.

I shall leave the last word to Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who is so affronted by this new scheme that he's stopped visiting schools. It's a shame but I can see his point.


subrosa said...

This is a shocking piece of legislation and has to be stopped. People will just refuse to help children or friends then children will miss out on many activities.

I've emailed my MSP and MP to state my anger at society being destroyed so blatantly.

Labour are so determined to have everyone in the country registered on a database they've now resorted to using children for the purpose.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this. I have no children but feel that children are being used by the ever growing nanny state we are living in today.

The wife and I have no idea what parents worries are today but as the media feed their worst nightmares I can see what a difficult job they have.

As a non parent I see this law as another feeding frenzy on family life.

I wish you and your family a fear free life.

Grogipher said...

I don't get the spurious at best dig at the Scottish Government about this? I've certainly not seen any suggestion that our current systems through Disclosure Scotland will be changed in the near future? Maybe I've missed something though.

Speaking as a Scout Leader, I do know that the biggest reason people don't come along is because they fear accusation of wrong doings, but that's a societal thing, not a legislative thing.

People don't come along because the form asks a bit too many questions, or because they're worried that we'll get told something about them; they know that everything will be handled sensibly, and it's not the form that puts people off. Perhaps the legislation impacts on the public psyche and will make it worse, but I doubt it. There have always been wee blue forms to fill in before you work with vulnerable people, and almost every charity that's worth its salt always went above and beyond what the law required anyway.

I can understand your concerns about this legislation, I can certainly see many issues and problems that they might face that could have been easily avoided - for one, I think they'll have a GIGANTIC backlog, I think they underestimate the scale of work they're about to give themselves.

Matt Wardman said...

While I'm bemused that this has suddenly hit the media (it has been in the works for years), I'm pleased to see the coverage - and you have written a great article.

I can see a situation where a man in his mid 30s, driving the minibus for his daughters' hockey team, could be barred from so doing because 20 years ago he got his couple of months' younger girlfriend pregnant when he was 16 and she was still 15and her parents complained to the Police. That would be a ridiculous overreaction but one, sadly, that could happen.

...has already happened, and the type of logic will happen routinely imo. Such a case was discussed on the legal forums. I think it was under CRB, but the principles are the same. This is roughly the account.

The parts of the mechanism that you may not be aware of are that cautions, previously "take a caution to close this quickly", now stay on your record until you are 100 (act from last 5 years or so). In the case I mention it was a fumble that turned into sex, embarrassed parents who made their child complain to the police, and this is a sex crime. Caution accepted, but 15 and 3/4 teenager who told partner they were 16 at party later withdraws allegation.

Unfortunately a caution cannot be withdrawn easily once accepted, so the party who accepted it gets denied work as a security guard under CRB when at univerity, and will not now ever be able to work in caring professions.

If you bear in mind the stories last year about Councils beginning to build databases of allegations which will be retained unless they can be specifically proved to be false, and the atmosphere under which school governors etc - consider the treatment of photographers (e.g., Dave Gorman - are going to make decisions, what do you think is going to happen to all the people with inconclusive information disclosed at the discretion of Chief Constables?


A veritable Dangerous Dogs Act (or the lockup the parents of truants Act that we have currently).
I'd suggest this setup will eventually eat itself when amid massive damage to our caring services and children unnecessarily denied parents - assuming that this will feed into the "has my partner any questionable history" process which is being piloted.

I'd encourage you to dig into this and keep digging.

What a f*cking mess (sorry), but you may be spared the worst of it in Scotland.

Unfortunately Tom Harris for one has drunk the Kool Aid on this one (same as ID cards).

For me, I will not be volunteering to anything involving children for the foreseeable - because I'm not taking the risk of what happens if an upset parent or child *does* say something.

I think that anyone volunteering - especially those working in the caring professions - will be fools to expose themselves to any unnecessary risk of false allegations, bearing in mind that the consequences may be loss of your career.

Richard T said...

I used to adminster the present scottish system for a local authority. Our approach was agreed by the council following input from social work, education, legal and personnel. Our starting point was minimisation of risk to a child or vulnerable adult, bearing in mind that potential offenders can be remarkably devious - think of grooming in chatrooms - linked to the basic right to privacy of the individual we wished vetted and established a commonsense criterion - was there opportunity for significant sole contact? If yes then enhanced disclosure; if maybe then a careful look at the individual case; if no then we did not seek disclosure. On balance, we saw no reason to check parents driving children to school events but this was an area where there was some genuine unease on the part of the professionals in social work and education. One of their reservations was whether we would wish a parent with a string of driving convictions to be trusted with others children.

The problem may lie in the fact that the disclosure process goes into old time expired cases, as well as allegations not taken up; it also covers all disciplinary action against an individual which relates to the disclosure decision and all convictions. However, the point is that a record does not automatically determine the outcome. That decision should rest with the employing formation to consider in relation to the job so an old non repeated offence committed when young will not necessarily disqualify. So for example, despite the potential outcry from the yellow press, a fine for possession of a social drug when a student would not normally disqualify someone in their 40s.

The key point for us was the balance of risk, knowing how children and vulnerable adults can come to rely on and trust someone who is 'working for the council'. Remember as well that many child abusers are part of the family. Accordingly, despite the arguments on civil liberty grounds, the aim is actually worthy although in my view, from what I have read in the media the approach seems over zealous.

Gordon said...

As a life-long volunteer, currently as a male coach working with female atheletes, I too recognise the issues that "Scout Leader" identifies. Like me, I have a feeling he's now a leader in an organisation that he was once a member of, filling in the forms and waiting for background checks to come back is just part of the price we pay to carry on volunteering. Those who left BBs/Scouts/Guides etc as young teenagers could offer so much to our organisations but are so very easily put off.

Yes, some adults are exceptionally devious and until they're *actually* caught doing something "wrong", all the checks in the world will still come up with nothing - a clean sheet.

In fact a group of young people going off to a Pipe Band competition (for example) in a convoy of cars are more likely to be at risk from a parent whose car does not have a valid MOT (and thus no insurance).

Although the data was complied in the US, on a recent 'Duty of Care' course the tutor pointed out that 90% of attacks on childre and young people are non-fatal and are carried out by other family members or close family friends - ie the victim knew their attacker.

I feel so frustrated that Richard T somehow believes that the balance of risk" somehow justifies this approach as a sort of necessary evil (I know my words not his). As most others have pointed out its plain wrong and will be unworkabale. More worringly it will encourage the 'tick the box' culture so that the concerns of a questioning group leader will be replaced by a "blank" piece of paper.


Matt Wardman said...

@richardt I appreciate your comments.

Two other concerns.

1 - We are already seeing cases under vetting and barring where the sheer time to process cases - despite claims to expedite the process etc etc - are ruining careers.

This is a concern raised previously by lawyers where time limits on investigations have been excluded from legislation, resulting in people accused but not found guilty being suspended for long enough to do sufficient damage that they may as well have been thrown out anyway.

Ask any teachers union what happens to employees in these circumstances - they leave the profession.

2 - We already. I don't believe that more complex processes will work anyway.

Here's an example of someone who is a victim of these processes not working already, in a thread on the CosmoDaddy blog. The whole thread is an excellent discussion from people deeply involved in the issue on both sides.

Account of safeguarding processes not working


Above all, I'm frightened by the bull-headed approach of our current govt, who will hardly ever back down on a declared policy even when it is shown to be


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