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Who's vetting whom?

The booming child protection industry just reinforces the fear and paranoia that overhang children's lives today, says Stuart Waiton.

The issue of child safety has been a largely uncontested area for a number of years. More recently, however, some of the problematic aspects of this approach to adults working with children have been questioned. The implied suspicion of adults expressed most clearly in the new Disclosure Scotland vetting procedure, for example, is raising concern within the voluntary sector, with groups such as the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and with Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, who is developing the idea of "proportionate protection".

This more questioning approach to aspects of child safety is to be welcomed. However, one concern of mine is that the overall framework, or what I have previously described as the "moral absolute", of child safety must itself be questioned.

Almost 10 years ago, I began a study into the Hamilton curfew, or what was officially called the "child safety initiative", which was set up by South Lanarkshire Council and Strathclyde Police. My concerns about this initiative were matched at the time by a number of children's charities and voluntary organisations concerned about the over-policing of young people who were often guilty of little more than hanging around the streets.

Unfortunately, one of the arguments used by these groups in opposing the curfew was that children and young people were safer on the streets than in the home.

For the Scottish organiser of Save the Children, one of the dangers of the police taking young people home was that children may face "the possibility of domestic violence or other forms of harm". For Gerison Lansdown, the former director of the then Children's Rights Office in England and Wales, "many children may be out in the evening in order to avoid abuse or violence at home. The imposition of a blanket curfew which forces them home would place them at a greater, not lesser, risk of harm."

Finally, a representative of the Children's Society, writing in a personal capacity, added his voice to the doubters, asking: "Will children be forced into their own homes to suffer violence and abuse silently?"

Despite the reality that child abuse, even in the home, is extremely rare, here the preoccupation of the local authority with "child safety" was simply replicated by an even more misanthropic image of children being pushed off the street by the police only to face abusive parents.

With this approach, the pros and cons of the curfew were contested, but the fears surrounding the issue of child safety were simply reinforced.

This year, a parliamentary motion entitled "Keeping Children Safe" has been put forward by Christine Grahame, of the SNP. She urges the Scottish Executive to review the operation of child protection registers, arguing:

"An approach to child protection that relies on procedures, lists and rigid rules will not keep many of our nation's children safe but that society at large has a responsibility and a duty to protect the nation's children."

This questioning of the growing bureaucratic child safety industry is to be welcomed. But, once again, even here this motion ends with the caveat that we must also be "mindful that it is not stranger danger but familiar faces which pose most risk to children, and to instigate a public awareness campaign to this end".

It is statistically true to argue that child abuse is more likely to occur in the home, but this does not mean that it is common. Nor does it follow that an "awareness" campaign to tell us that family and friends are the most likely abusers is needed or would be useful. All that this could accomplish would be to challenge technically one aspect of the obsession with child safety - rigid rules and procedures - while ultimately reinforcing the fear and paranoia that overhang children's lives today.

Ultimately, the unspoken logic of this approach is that parents rather than professionals are the ones who need to be vetted. This is hardly a basis for challenging today's suspicion of adults.

Stuart Waiton is director of

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