Give me shelter
Why child protection is one of our most sacred duties towards children.
Scratch beneath the surface of the mildest of classrooms, and see what you find. Richeli* was a girl who said nothing in my classes until I dragged it out from her. One day she stood behind after the crowd had left, her best friend standing behind her. “Go on,” she said. “Please sir, can I tell you something,” she said, without looking up. And so it begins. You know you’re not about to hear anything good when it starts like that. Richeli told me, “there’s this guy I’ve been seeing from the estate. He….” A pause. “..he raped me.” And suddenly it’s a very different day.
Here’s a dreadful truth. Let’s say you teach in a school with 1,000 students. Without doubt, someone in that school is being abused. Without doubt, someone has to lock their doors to prevent a member of their family attacking them. Someone is being offered drugs. Someone has alcoholic parents. Someone’s parents are dying. Someone is struggling with addiction, or abuse, or violence.
Finding out who these kids are is our concern. It has to be. I’ve heard staff say, “This isn’t our job, we’re here to teach.” But I find that hard to square when the wounded lie beneath our noses. Which isn’t to say that each teacher must also be a trained social worker. But it does mean that every teacher needs to be a point of contact to whom a kid can turn.
Every school in England and Wales needs, by law, to have a Child Protection Officer (CPO). This is a trained adult who acts as a conduit between the social services, the police, the agencies of state intervention and the child.
But any CPO will tell you that this is only the beginning. Each school also needs its entire staff to be able to know what to do in the event of a disclosure. For example, they should know never to promise anonymity to the child right from the start. If any child comes to you and says, “can I tell you something in confidence?” the good teacher will say, “no, I can’t. Because I might have to tell someone in order to protect you. Why don’t you tell me first and I’ll tell you what needs to happen next.” Because there are few things worse than lying to a vulnerable child. They don’t need well-meant deception.
In my experience, often a child will be desperate for you to do something. Often they just want to unburden themselves, especially if their private horror has been private for too long. I knew one boy who made a disclosure to me of constant physical abuse from his stepfather, and who could barely bring himself to speak about it when he finally did. Some children have no one at home to turn to, and sometimes not even a friend at school.
And sometimes it’s you. Don’t offer them immediate solutions. Don’t get upset. Don’t get angry. Just listen to them, pass it up, and stay involved. They might want to talk to you again, and if they do, make time. Clear the decks, and be grateful that you might be able to make a big difference to the quality of someone’s life. Or you might not, because complex problems often refuse simple solutions, and if things are bad then it’s likely that they will stay bad in some way. We can’t unpick every stitch in their histories, and we can’t save the world. But we can be there for them. You’ll know when you have been.
*name has been changed