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

Judith Gillespie development manager, Scottish Parent Teacher Counicl

WHEN THE child protection industry first started to escalate, I suggested, as a way of countering the excesses, that the only way to keep children totally safe was to lock them in Rapunzel towers until the age of 18. It is depressing to find reality creeping up on my nightmare. According to a recent survey, 14 is the average age when parents would be happy to let their children go out unsupervised.

Their anxiety is fuelled by a growing focus on the risk of sexual abuse and paedophiles to the near exclusion of other and more common risks. This was well illustrated when the Scottish Executive published child protection statistics detailing child referrals for 2005-06. The headlines were all in terms of a 33 per cent increase in child sex abuse cases. The figures themselves revealed a rather different story.

In that period, 2,791 children were placed on the child protection register; 301 were there for sexual abuse and, while this is 33 per cent up from the previous year, it is less than the figure for 2003 and represents only 11 per cent of the total. The most common reason for children being placed on the register was physical neglect (1,243 or 45 per cent of the cases), followed by physical abuse (779 or 28 per cent of cases).

However, facts do not calm anxieties and one cause of this is the high-profile media coverage of such tragic cases as that of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (in Cam-bridgeshire five years ago). But it is because such cases are fortunately rare that they generate so much coverage. If they happened daily, they would soon merit no more than the small paragraph often given to traffic accidents; in 2006, 369 children were killed or seriously injured on Scotland's roads.

If our obsession with sexual abuse does not reflect the real risks to children, then our focus on weeding out rogue workers also misrepresents the nature of the problem.

The most common abuse for children is domestic. The 2005-06 figures for referrals showed that in 79 per cent of cases where the child's primary knownsuspected abuser was known, it was the child's birth parent and two-and a-half times more likely to be the mother than the father. In cases of sexual abuse, some 80 per cent of abusers are family members or "friends".

If you add on chance encounters, where an adult randomly attacks a child with whom they have no connection (and these are most of the high-profile cases), then incidents of the rogue worker become fortunately uncommon. It is for this reason I have long argued that the current requirements on anyone working with children to have a disclosure check are excessive.

Moreover, the definition of a child (anyone up to the age of 18) and childcare are so wide that nearly one million people, a quarter of all Scottish adults, could be drawn into the disclosure net for activities as diverse as working in a children's home to being an extra pair of hands at a school disco. Some authorities even misinterpret the legislation and require that anyone who sets foot inside a school must be disclosed, even if it's the plumber who is there to sort out a central heating problem.

Does this excess matter? Is it not better to be safe than sorry?

The argument goes that if people have nothing to hide, they have no reason not to submit to a disclosure check. In fact, the damage of excess comes in many forms. While everyone working in a children's home should be the subject of thorough checks, for the casual volunteer the check is a burden too far. As volunteers fail to materialise, so children's activities will cease.

While it may be unseemly to speak of money, as no price can be placed on a child's safety, disclosure is not free. It is costing millions of pounds that would be better spent on frontline services.

But perhaps most damaging is the destruction of social trust. The disclosure system is based on suspicion; every adult is guilty until proven innocent and, for children, every adult is a danger unless proven otherwise. This excess is taking resources, effort and attention away from dangers that are a greater threat to children. Good child protection requires a proper, not hysterical, evaluation of risk.

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