A nation blinded by paranoia

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Child safety is the new moral absolute. Abuse and danger are everywhere. Yet an unseeing society let Victoria Climbie die, says Stuart Waiton

HE Victoria Climbie case reminds those of us who are somewhat sceptical about our child safety obsessed times that there are some unquestionably cruel people out there. Unfortunately for Victoria, this obsession with child safety did not help her.

The safety of children will always be an issue for society. However, the commonsense attitude to child safety has become engulfed by a fearful public and a paranoid and ever expanding industry of child safety experts.

At a time of few, if any, remaining old moral absolutes the new moral absolute of the 21st century is that of child safety.

Once treated as a moral absolute, child safety issues, regardless of how extreme or damaging to society generally, take on a life of their own.

Issues of child protection become ever more newsworthy and politicians fall over each other to denounce the latest "threat to children".

It's hard to escape from the weight of this morality - it even starts to infect our inner thoughts. Taking my three-year-old to a pantomime in Berwick at Christmas, I found myself in a theatre packed with only schoolchildren and me. My own sense of paranoia wasn't helped by the knowledge that Edinburgh had just attempted to stop adults taking photographs of their own children at school nativity plays in case the pictures ended up on the net.

As the above example suggests, the growing concern with child safety is less to do with an enlightened respect for children than a degraded view of other people. The dual concerns of child safety and distrust of others sit comfortably alongside one another.

Child safety and the "loss of community" were the key issues on a Radio Scotland debate I was involved in at the end of last year. "Little Shabbaz", a five-year-old Asian child, had managed to escape his mother's grasp in Glasgow and travelled 300 miles by train before being discovered in a station down south, looking for food.

"How could people in Buchanan Street have let this child walk past them?" a mother cried. "What about the people on the train? The ticket inspector?"

The concern about how to approach a child nowadays was seen as a big issue, especially for men, and gave some insight into one of the damaging consequences of the paedophile panic. However, what disturbed me most about the discussion was how the blinkers of child safety contaminated almost every contribution and prevented a more reasoned debate.

Streetwise Shabbaz, who lives round the corner from me and was described by one shopkeeper as a "cheeky wee lad", became "the innocent angel", and his "adventure", as he called it, became a "nightmare journey". Danger was all around and he was lucky to have made it back in one piece.

But don't forget, a contributor reminded us, a child is more likely to be abused by someone they know than a stranger. Not safe on the streets, not safe in the home - simply not safe.

A society enthused by a spirit of adventure and exploration rather than safety would no doubt have seen this incident rather differently. And a world where adults are spontaneously trusted rather than feared would likewise have heard a different tale - a tale perhaps of "plucky Shabbaz", his "exciting train journey" and the "fun" of driving home with the policeman.

Today child safety morality touches every adult, every child and every encounter between the two. Abuse and danger are everywhere and every child is potentially at risk. In this environment, it is perhaps not surprising that the most obvious cases of child cruelty, like that of Victoria Climbie, go unnoticed by the child safety professionals who simply cannot see the wood for the trees.

Stuart Waiton is a director of the youth research group GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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