The enemy within

26th September 2003 at 01:00
At a time when children have never been safer, there is an exaggerated sense of danger and distrust among adults, says Stuart Waiton

Like that most depraved and inhuman feminist mantra, "All men are potential rapists", it appears that the Government has extended this chant to, "All men and women are potential child abusers".

Following the brutal torture and murder of Victoria Climbie, I commented that the problem may not be that teachers and childcare professionals are unaware of the dangers facing children, but rather that they are too aware.

Being too aware of child safety is, in today's world, an oxymoron. But the point being made was that if we fear for the safety of all children and see them all as being "at risk" of abuse, then the chances are that we will fail to see the trees for the wood.

Unsurprisingly, the usual inquiry was set up following Victoria's death to find social meaning in this extreme individual case of brutality and, of course, a solution has been found. From now on in England, there will be more joined-up working, more early intervention and every child will have their own electronic file from birth "to avoid a repetition of the murder of Victoria Climbie". Problem solved.

This pattern of finding meaning in the most extreme of cases and developing social policy that affects us all was best illustrated following events at Dunblane. The various safety initiatives promoted by the Cullen inquiry were meant to make children safe, make parents more confident about their children's safety and thus develop a more "confident community". In this way, like many other community safety initiatives, safety was seen not only as a simple form of protection but as a way of developing communities.

But what has been the result? Has driving into school through 10ft-high perimeter fences made people feel more at one with their community? Indeed has it even made parents feel that their children are safe? Similarly, has the increased vetting of childcare workers and teachers increased the trust between them and parents? And has the banning of handguns made society as a whole feel more confident and safe? I think not.

At a time when children have never been safer, the development of these community safety initiatives has actually helped to exaggerate the sense of danger and distrust among adults across the UK. Schools that resemble prison camps become the norm. Tens of thousands of pounds worth of the latest security equipment is expected to be installed in every school. And the inquisition of any adult who dares approach a school gate becomes accepted as the "necessary procedure".

Remember, the justification for these developments was an out-of-control man in Dunblane called Thomas Hamilton. Today we are all expected to treat one another as potential Thomas Hamiltons.

Interestingly, the Government paper developed from the Laming inquiry into the Climbie case to address the issue of child protection has expanded its remit. By increasing early intervention, developing joined-up practice and a file on every child, the paper Every Child Matters also aims to reduce teenage pregnancy, substance misuse, crime and antisocial behaviour.

How and why a paper developed to stop "another Victoria slipping through the net" has resulted in proposals to prevent crime and antisocial behaviour is unclear. However, it appears that Lord Laming's concerns were not only related to protecting children from adults but also about protecting young people from themselves and about protecting adults from antisocial young people.

I doubt whether Victoria Climbie would be impressed with her death resulting in more drugs counselling and antisocial behaviour initiatives, but child safety initiatives know no bounds. It appears that the reaction to Victoria's death and the policies being developed have less to do with the realities of the specific case in question and more to do with the loss of trust the Government has in the public and the professionals who work with them.

Not only does the Every Child Matters paper start from an assumption that "every man and woman is a potential abuser", but that "every young person is a potentially antisocial junkie".

This is hardly the basis of a vibrant community. But at least we'll be safe. Or so they say.

Stuart Waiton is a director of

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