Paranoia won't keep our children safe
Are compulsory criminal record checks a step too far in keeping kids safe, asks Celine McGillycuddy
AFRIEND of mine was recently declared to be a dangerous paedophile who was apparently preying on young boys in a Dublin suburb.
That was according to a group of overzealous mothers, who took it upon themselves to doorstep all their neighbours and inform them that an unknown man in his 30s had been seen playing football with the boys in a local park and had even given them money. He must be grooming them, they panicked, and nobly set out to put the entire town on red alert.
"I was waiting for my sister, and while she was getting ready, I was outside having a penalty shoot-out with the young lads. I gave a few euro to the winner when I was leaving," my friend told me. The next day his sister called him to say that she had been visited by frantic mothers warning her to keep her little boy indoors because a strange man had been around. Calmly, she reassured them that the "strange" man was, in fact, her brother and there was nothing to worry about.
"You'd think that once she told them it was only me they'd be relieved, but they weren't, they were still suspicious. How mad is that?" he said. "It's like they wanted to believe their own worst nightmares. It's now got to the stage that you can't have a kick-about with a few kids without being labelled a pervert."
Never before have we been on such high alert to the dangers the world presents to our children. From the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, to the dark world inhabited by the children of Josef Fritzl, and the recent emergence of Jaycee Dugard after nearly 20 years in captivity at the hands of her abuser, the potential evil awaiting our most vulnerable is unthinkable.
Here, the Ryan report laid bare the most appalling home truths. Only recently, I discovered that a childhood friend had been abused as a child by her father. Her father was a popular man in our community, a larger-than-life figure with a cheery demeanour who often joined in as we played on the street. It's sickening to think of the horrors this man visited on his daughter.
There is not a right-minded adult on the planet who does not want to see action taken and have our children shielded from harm. But a rising tide of protectionism in the UK has given way to a very important debate. Parents and those who work with children are outraged at a strict new vetting and barring scheme which will see them subjected to compulsory criminal record checks.
The scheme -- which was recommended following the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by school caretaker Ian Huntley -- will be the largest such vetting system in the world. Children's club drivers, parents or volunteers who regularly drive children for sports or social clubs, dinner ladies, volunteers who read books to children in schools or libraries, parents who host foreign exchange students or help out at guides or with junior sports teams, and anyone taking part in activities involving "frequent" or "intensive" contact with children three times in a month, every month, or once overnight, must register or face potential fines of up to £5,000.
"Children's safety is paramount, but we are in danger of creating a world in which we think every adult who approaches children means to do them harm," warned Liberal Democrat spokesman Chris Huhne.
"Should parents who give other people's children a lift to sports matches really face a £5,000 fine and a criminal record if they fail to register?"
Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, has threatened to stop visiting schools in protest of having to register with the scheme, describing it as dispiriting, sinister and "corrosive to healthy social interaction" because it will encourage children to see everyone as a potential rapist or killer.
"Why should I have to pay £64 to a government agency to give me a little certificate to say I'm not a paedophile?"
The British Government has vehemently defended the vetting process, claiming that "safeguarding children is the priority", but critics argue that this new regime has the potential to be a real disaster for activities involving young people in the UK. Already evidence is building that men are becoming increasingly reluctant to work with children for fear of being labelled paedophiles. Primary schools are now facing a shortage of male teachers.
Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the think tank Civitas, commented, "The idea that men are afraid of being seen as paedophiles is very serious. Obviously we want to protect children, but we don't want to get to the stage where we are harming them because they don't see any men in schools."
A further study showed that more than one in eight men now do not volunteer to work with children because they are worried people will think they are paedophiles. It seems men are the ultimate victims of a culture wrought with fear and suspicion.
A grandfather in his 70s recalled the distressing experience he had recently when he took his grandson to a local playground. "I was looking after our little fella when a girl of about two ran by and fell. My instinct was just to bend down and ask if she was OK because she was crying. Her mother ran over and grabbed her, looking at me as if I was after harming her in some way. I tried to tell her the girl had fallen, but she just scooped her up in her arms and sneered at me. I felt like I was accused of interfering with the child. I was very upset after that," he said.
"I ask my wife to come to the swings with me now, or I don't go at all. I'd never talk to another person's child again. I was very frightened by how that mother looked at me."
This heightened sense of predator or paedo-paranoia has infiltrated every level of society. In her study, Touchlines: The Problematics of Touching between Children and Professionals, Dr Heather Piper reported on cases including a teacher who avoided putting a plaster on a child's scraped leg, nursery staff calling a child's mother every time he needed to go to the toilet and a male gym teacher leaving a girl injured in the hall while he waited for a female colleague. One school reportedly kept an account of every "touching" incident.
It seems touching a child, even to nurse a wound, is a potential criminal act.
We are frightened for our children, but we are also frightened to help our children. Some years ago, British bricklayer Clive Peachey was driving his lorry when he spotted a toddler wandering on her own. "I kept thinking I should go back. The reason I didn't was because I thought people might think I was trying to abduct her." He reassured himself that the parents must be around and would find her. A few minutes later, two-year-old Abigail Rae fell into a pond, having wandered from her nursery.
When Clive Peachey heard about Abigail on the radio, he contacted police to report that he had driven by the little girl.
While this is an extreme example of just how fearful we have become, it begs the question: how many children are ignored or overlooked because we are just too afraid to interfere? Decent, conscientious people are so terrified of their goodwill being misinterpreted that they would rather turn a blind eye and suffer the emotional consequences.
The bleak reality is: children are suffering. They absorb our fear, suspicion and worry. A recent report found that Irish children as young as 10 are suffering from stress and anxiety, extreme unhappiness and depression; self-harm is on the rise.
A young mother told me that her nine-year-old son gets very upset when he hears the word "paedophile". "A boy in his class told him a story of a paedophile who climbed in the window and abducted a child when he was having a bath. He was all upset when it came to having a bath. I couldn't work out what was wrong, and I nearly cried when he told me," she said.
"He hates hearing anything about Maddie or any of those stories, but they are just everywhere, so he feels like abusers are everywhere too."
In his report, Licenced to Hug, sociologist Professor Frank Furedi warns that vetting checks have fuelled suspicion of all adults, which has in turn led to a breakdown of communities. Afraid to tell off or even talk to other people's children, adults have become deskilled in dealing with younger generations.
He writes, "When parents feel in need of official reassurance that other parents have passed the paedophile test before they even start with the pleasantries, something has gone badly wrong."
Ironically, our desperation to protect our children's innocence could result in the destruction of that most precious childhood quality.
Recently, I was at a hen party dinner. The bride to be was dressed up as a bunny. A little girl approached and stared at the bride-to-be, who said, "Hello" to her. The two were having what could only be described as a harmless, innocent conversation when the child's mother approached and pulled her child away.
"What were you doing?" she hissed at the little girl.
"I was just talking to the bunny rabbit," the child said. It's a remarkable world that children inhabit, and we could all benefit from looking at it a little differently.