Thursday 23 October 2014

Warning children of 'stranger danger' is not enough

Denis Naughten

Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30

It is not enough to tell children to be wary of strangers. Picture posed by a model (Photo: Thinkstock)

The sentencing last week of an individual who viciously assaulted two young children has once again brought to the fore many parents' fear of "stranger danger": that someone could abduct and assault a vulnerable child.

However, the reality is that the majority of such offences are not carried out by a stranger but by someone who has already built up trust with a child or, indeed, in many cases with the whole family.

So warning children not to talk to strangers is simply not enough. Likewise, relying on garda vetting of the so-called "sex offenders' register", so that those who pose a risk will not have access to children, does not address the problem.

It is interesting to note that last October the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland published important research on sexual abuse of children in Ireland. It showed that of the children who reported sexual violence, just 7pc of reported incidents involved strangers. Interestingly, it also showed that 31pc involved close family members; in other words 69pc involved someone other than a close family member.

The vast majority of this 69pc are known to the child, and the offender has built up a relationship through grooming – not just grooming of the child but in some cases of the parents as well.

There are those who will argue against providing parents with access to information regarding a high-risk sex offender who has access to their child. Their argument will undoubtedly focus on the "7pc of stranger danger". However, the fact is that such a disclosure would provide parents with access to vital information on those who have already accessed the family circle of trust: friends, neighbours, new partners, etc.

The focus of my proposed new law is to allow gardai to disclose relevant and appropriate information on high-risk sex offenders to the parents of children and vulnerable adults if they believe that child is at risk.

While it is legally possible for a member of the gardai to make such a disclosure at present, I believe that we need a formalised system which would enable parents to enquire whether persons coming into contact with their child or vulnerable adult have been convicted of a sexual offence or pose a serious danger. It provides for a similar entitlement for persons in authority in schools and clubs.

Those against this law say that it will undermine the human rights of individuals. But we must remember that the human rights of innocent children have to be protected as well.

I believe that the introduction of a law that allows for disclosure in limited circumstances will change the public attitude to reporting suspicious activity. This will ensure that such suspicious activity is brought to the attention of the gardai, thereby in some cases leading to further measures to protect children or prosecutions for breaches of sex offenders' release conditions.

The system is modelled on Sarah's Law, which operates in the UK through the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme. Sarah's Law is named after eight-year-old Sarah Payne, who was abducted and murdered in the UK in 2000 by a convicted sex offender.

An assessment of the initial pilot phase of the law in the UK showed only 7pc of requests led to a disclosure. (New information indicates that the level of disclosure may now have doubled). However, it led to 14pc of cases being referred to child welfare services and in a similar number of cases further actions were taken by the police.

In total, in over a third of cases some action was taken to protect children.

Surely, this is justification enough that we need to protect the vulnerable, not just the violators?

To paraphrase the words of the mother of Sarah Payne: if just one child can be kept safe as a result of a change in the law it will have been worth it.

We have seen the introduction of Megan's Law in the US and Sarah's Law in the UK; both named after young girls who were abducted and murdered by high-risk sex offenders. We need to act now so that the same doesn't happen here and that this law is not named after another young girl, this time an Irish girl.

 

Denis Naughten is an independent TD for Roscommon South Leitrim.

Irish Independent

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