Licensed to hug
james gubb, 26 June 2008
The dramatic escalation of child protection measures has succeeded in poisoning the relationship between the generations and creating an atmosphere of suspicion that actually increases the risks to children, according to a new study released today by Civitas.
In Licensed to Hug Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, argues that children need to have contact with a range of adult members of the community for their education and socialisation, but ‘this form of collaboration, which has traditionally underpinned intergenerational relationships, is now threatened by a regime that insists that adult/child encounters must be mediated through a security check’ (p.xii).
The scope of child protection has become immense. Since its formation in 2002 the Criminal Records Bureau has issued 15 million disclosures, but the whole operation has now been ratcheted up several notches by the passage of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. This has led to the creation of the Independent Safeguarding Authority which, when it is rolled out in October 2009, will require CRB checks of 11.3 million people – over one quarter of the adult population of England.
Whereas adults would once routinely have rebuked children who were misbehaving, or helped children in distress, they now think twice about the consequences of interacting with other people’s children. One of the contributors to Licensed to Hug describes the culture of fear that pervades what should be ordinary relationships:
‘My daughter is allowed to play out in the street with kids from the neighbourhood. She said she was going to Semih’s house and I said OK. Ten minutes later Semih’s mom knocked at my door and said, ‘I must introduce myself as we haven’t met.’ I thought she was going to tell me her name, have a chat, but she said she was CRB checked and her husband was CRB checked and then went away. I still don’t know her name!’
As Frank Furedi comments: ‘When parents feel in need of official reassurance that other parents have passed the paedophile test before they even start on the pleasantries, this indicates that something has gone badly wrong in our communities.’ (p.xi)
In an atmosphere of mistrust, in which adults suspect other adults and children are taught to suspect anyone other than their parents, there is a feeling that it is best not to become involved. At the inquest of a two-year-old girl who had wandered into a pond and drowned, a man who had driven past and saw her obviously lost said that he did not go to help ‘because I thought someone would see me and think I was trying to abduct her’ (p.48). This terrible story has acquired the status of an urban legend, because so many people wonder what they would have done in similar circumstances. In an almost equally distressing story, one of the respondents to a survey carried out for this book explained the problems her partner experiences when he takes their two-year-old son swimming:
‘… the mothers in the cafe he was waiting in were giving him filthy looks (apparently when he walked in it was like a scene from a Western when the room goes silent and tumbleweed blows across the foreground). This happens whenever he goes out with our son on his own, especially if he takes him into a joint changing/feeding room. Now, there is nothing strange looking about him, he’s a perfectly normal guy, so I was just wondering if any other dads out there have the same experience? He’s considering stapling his police check to his forehead every time he goes out!’ (p.53)
As Furedi says: ‘We should question whether there is anything healthy … in a response where communities look at children’s own fathers with suspicion, but would balk at helping a lost child find their way home’ (p.54).
The effect on the voluntary sector
Anyone working for a voluntary organisation who comes into contact with children in any way has to take the paedophile test.
‘From Girl Guiders to football coaches, from Christmas-time Santas to parents helping out in schools, volunteers—once regarded as pillars of the community —have been transformed in the regulatory and public imagination into potential child abusers, barred from any contact with children until the database gives them the green light.’ (p.x)
The effect of this treatment is to put some people off volunteering altogether. The Volunteer Survey 2007 found that 13 per cent of men would not volunteer because they were worried people would think they were child abusers (p.16) and 28 per cent of those who responded to an online survey carried out for Licensed to Hug said they knew someone who had been put off volunteering by the CRB process (p.18). The Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley Green, has said that nearly 50,000 girls are waiting to join the Guides because of a shortage of adult volunteers, partly caused by the red tape of the CRB process.
Perhaps the worst thing about all this is that the vetting procedure does not provide anything like a cast-iron guarantee that children will be safe with a particular adult. All it tells us is that the person has not been convicted of an offence in the past. What happens after the vetting procedure is unpredictable, so the process ‘works as a form of impression management. It provides a ritual of security rather than effective protection.’ (p.viii). It would be much better if adults could use their discretion and professional judgement – skills that are now becoming redundant:
‘The formalisation of intergenerational contact contri¬butes to the deskilling of adulthood. If adults are not expected to respond to problems in accordance with their experience and intuition they will have little incentive to develop the kind of skills required to manage children and young people.’ (p.ix)
Halt the juggernaut
Instead of creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, Licensed to Hug suggests that we need to ‘halt the juggernaut of regulation’ (p.55) and, instead, behave as if the majority of adults have no predatory attitudes towards children but, on the contrary, can be relied on to help them. If we could encourage greater openness and more frequent contact between the generations, we would all benefit.
‘The adult qualities of spontaneous compassion and commitment are, we argue, far more effective safeguarding methods than pieces of paper that promote the messages “Keep Out” and “Watch Your Back”.’ (p.40)
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