Helpful or hysterical?

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Are disclosure checks going a step too far? Are volunteers being lost in the name of child protection? Illustration Hashim Akib

John Wilson director of education, East Renfrewshire Council

YOU CANNOT be too careful when children are at the heart of everything you do. They, and their parents, deserve the very best education you can provide and they demand and deserve the very best safety and protection, too.

That's our philosophy in East Renfrewshire and it's based firmly on the premise, well known to and practised by every emergency planner, of expecting the worst and planning accordingly. If you do, you won't go far wrong. But ignore that dictum and you are stoking up trouble.

That is why we have adopted our stance of insisting that all parent volunteers, including those supervised by staff, must under- go full disclosure checks. Often criticised for being too severe by those who haven't thought the issues through, and often by critics who don't carry the responsibility of providing an edu- cation service themselves, it's an approach that has stood us, young people and parents and our staff in good stead for more than 10 years.

It is generally true that the majority of child abusers are known to their victims, but experts will also tell you that there is still the abuser who gets himself or herself into situations in which grooming and eventual abuse of children is not just possible, but, in the fullness of time, inevitable.

That is what we have to guard against. The history of child protection is littered with cases where assumptions were made with tragic consequences. One has only to look at the Thomas Hamilton case (the 1996 Dunblane massacre) to see how the obvious was missed, how guards were dropped and how children, families and an entire community suffered horribly as a result.

Society and the media are unforgiving of any public service organisation that gets it wrong as far as child protection is concerned; but much worse is the lasting effect on children and their families if a paedophile does groom and then strike.

Our approach receives the support of parents, with very few complaints from our parent body. The majority of parent volunteers accept that it is only right there are disclosure checks on them to ensure that they are protected as much as the council is, by being able to show to other parents that they have been approved to work with another parent's child.

We are not claiming that every parent who wants to give her or his time freely is a potential child abuser and few, if any, parent volunteers have drawn that conclusion from our explanation of why we need them to be checked. At a time when child protection and safety issues have never been higher on the public agenda, and when the cyberspace groomer has never been more real, we need to be able to give all our parents the reassurance that, as an education authority, we have taken every possible step to put the safety of their children at the top of our agenda. Parents and children deserve no less.

Our policy comes from many years of practical experience in running an education service, experience that teaches us that what may seem impossible and implausible, can always happen. The gift of hindsight is no defence whatsoever in the cold light of day and in the glare of the media spotlight in the aftermath.

Lessons have been learnt from cases of the past and we must never drop our guard. A perusal of the national and local press over the course of any academic year will prove the point that abusers are real and they do present themselves, both as paid staff and volunteers, so we are not dealing in the realms of theory.

It may be a sad comment on our society that we need to take the action we do. But the hard fact is that one case of abuse arising out of a failure to demand disclosure checking of one parent would be one too many. The damage done to just one child is not a price worth paying and the resulting outcry would be centred on one question: why did you not expect the worst and plan accordingly?

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