Who can we trust with children?

I took Grace to a birthday party yesterday morning for one of her friends. It was at a soft-play centre in Southampton – in many ways, an ideal place to have a birthday party for a group of excited three and four year olds. Except, as we went in, I noticed a sign:

“In the interest of CHILD PROTECTION, photography is NOT PERMITTED”

It’s such a shame – because when it’s your own child’s birthday party, of course you want to get photos of them playing with their friends on their big day. But his parents weren’t allowed to do that. Because of “child protection”.

It’s not to say that I’ve not seen this before – all of the soft-play centres I’ve taken Grace to have the same rules, and we had the same thing at Grace’s birthday party in the Marwell centre. But I noticed it more because it reminded me of a discussion from Thursday night. Thursday night was a training session for a youth mentoring programme that I’m a volunteer with, and someone mentioned something they’d seen discussed in an interview with Esther Rantzen on GMTV. The story goes that a parent was arrested for taking photographs of their own children in a public playground. It sounded pretty shocking – over the last few years, I’ve probably taken hundreds of photos of my girls in our local park, and I wouldn’t think of that as being even suspicious, let alone something warranting arrest!

I’ve since tried to find a report of this story, but searches in Google and BBC news sites haven’t turned anything up. In fact, the closest mention I’ve found have been a couple of forum threads on GMTV’s own site.

There might be an element of chinese whispers about this – it might be that someone was warned, not arrested. In fact, I’m fairly sure that taking photos of your own kids in a public space is entirely legal. (And a quick search seems to turn up enough comments on photographers rights or photographing children to back up my bold IANAL statement.)

Even allowing for the fact that the story I heard may not be the entire truth, the fact that I could even believe it at all is indicative of the state of child protection fears in the UK at the moment. I come across “Child protection” as a topic very frequently – the discussion on Thursday night about new policies for On The Level is just the latest.

In Solent Youth Action, we’ve needed to discuss child protection issues many times. And for a group of both staff and volunteers who went into this to try and help young people, it’s always somewhat frustrating to have to spend time writing policies for how to work with children, and procedures for handling reports of child abuse. It comes up in lots of ways, but none more visible than the “CRB check”. A CRB check is a document containing a disclosure of an individual’s criminal record, that you can obtain from the Criminal Records Bureau. It’s become a standard thing to ask for from anyone who will be working with young people.

It seems to have become a badge of trustworthiness, which may itself be unhelpful. A CRB check really only tells you that at the time the bit of paper was printed, that person had either not committed a crime yet, or had not yet been caught. It doesn’t tell you that they wont commit a crime in the future. It doesn’t even really tell you definitively that they’ve not committed a crime in the past. Theoretically, someone could commit a crime between the time it takes for the disclosure document to be printed, and for you to get a copy – it’s one of those things that is out of date the moment it’s printed.

And yet, it’s acquired this status that you become somehow safer and more trustworthy with this little bit of paper. Which I do worry might make some feel that a CRB check is the be-all-and-end-all of child protection responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t request a lot of CRB checks. Our “Child & Vulnerable Person Protection Policy” states that “CRB checks will be carried out for all staff and for young people aged 16 and over who will be volunteering with children or young people”.

In fact, we get through so many CRB disclosures that we only recently considered registering as an organisation that can process CRB forms ourselves, rather than going through a third party “Umbrella Body” as we do now. As I recall, the threshold for an organisation big enough to justify doing their own checks (that is, validating information that applicants enter on forms and examining proofs of identity before forwarding this to the CRB) is something like a hundred disclosures a year. If we’d decided to be an Umbrella Body ourselves, we could make up some of that threshold by processing applications for other organisations.

Ultimately, we decided against registering, but the point remains that we ask for a lot of people’s criminal records. I don’t like blanket requests of CRB disclosures. In fact, it’s the sort of thing that even the Government last month published guidance for charities on requesting CRB checks for volunteers (pdf). It comments on charities wanting to request a CRB disclosure needing to make the decision whether to do so “carefully … because there is a strong and demonstrable reason for doing so and not ‘just in case’…”.

That said, we couldn’t not do them. We request them for anyone who will be volunteering with children or young people, and I dont think that we could do less. Not only do we want to take every possible step to protect young people from any harm, but there is also a risk to the reputation of the organisation if we were found not to be requesting CRB checks – for example, it was only a few months ago that a Manchester charity was publicly criticised for not requesting CRB checks for people working with children.

So CRB checks aren’t going away. In fact, we’re soon going to be getting more of the same with the launch of the ISA next year. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is introducing a new form of check that combines the criminal records check we get now, with the maintaining of a list of people who are barred from working with children (replacing the current POCA and List 99 government lists). And these checks are going to become legally required, for both employees and volunteers.

Regular security checks are going to be the approach to child protection for the foreseeable future.

What does this all mean for us as a society? There was a very insightful report published last month called “Licensed To Hug : How child protection policies are poisoning the relationship between the generations and damaging the voluntary sector“. The report itself costs a few pounds but is a good read. There are some good summaries around though if you don’t want to buy a copy though, including the Civitas press release on the report, and a fascinating blog post by one of the author’s of the report.

There are lots of good observations in the report – too many to list here, considering how long this post has already got! But in particular, it talks about the fact that we’re nearly at a point where you need a license to interact with children (other than your own). And how this approach:

  • Fuels suspicions among adults about each other;
  • Transmits negative signals about adults to children;
  • Undermines the ability of adults to take responsibility for children
  • Diminishes adult authority and damages community relations

I agree – and think the wider effects of this mentality can be seen throughout society. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen groups of young teenagers in town shout “paedo!” at any adult who might dare to try challenge them for any anti-social behaviour. And it’s enough to scare off most adults.

I read an article in The New Statesman by the chief executive of Barnado’s who said that: “I am likely to usher my wife forward if a child falls over in the street, lest my picking up the child be misinterpreted.” Adults – particularly men – are getting scared to go anywhere near anyone else’s kids.

The press have started picking up on this – even starting to pick up the name “anti-paedophile test” when describing the ISA check. There may even be the start of a backlash, and reporting on this has varied from thoughtful to quite angry. It’s debatable how much responsibility the press should take for this current climate, as certain elements of the media have certainly stoked the public’s fears about the spectre of the paedophile.

In the meantime, more checks and more restrictions on what you can do near children (including on when you can take photos!) are likely to stay the norm. It’s depressing. And I’m sure it scares off potential volunteers from youth volunteering.

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