Friday, September 11, 2009
Keeping my child safe - an over-anxious mum writes
I remember the first time the responsibilities of parenthood knocked me for six. It was when the midwife came to my house for a late pregnancy check and to get me to do my birth plan. The poor woman was subjected to the 2 pages of typed A4 that I had already produced. She then asked me if I wanted the baby to be given Vitamin K as I intended to breastfeed, to prevent haemorrhagic disease of the newborn, and if so, did I want it given by injection or orally. Now, I'd been very careful about what I ate during my pregnancy - I still try to put down my daughter's academic talents to the fact that I consumed a lifetime's supply of Omega 3 in those short months. This, by the way, was not deliberate - I craved sardines - but the vitamin K question was a whole new ball game. For the first time, I actually had to make a decision which would directly affect her and it scared the living daylights out of me.
The issue was resolved in the end after lots of research on my part and discussion with my husband, but the incident gave me my first real dose of maternal anxiety.
I am naturally a great worrier. A temperature or an off sounding cough from my daughter is enough to set alarm bells ringing. Last night, she went off on her new(ish) bike with her friends for the first time - only for a little while, and literally yards away, but I was at home climbing the walls. My current obsession is whether the rabbits are warm enough at night, despite two separate things to insulate their hutch (using NASA technology, apparently, which will be why it was so expensive) and it's barely September. By Christmas, they'll probably be in my bed:-)
So it's such a relief that the Government is introducing a scheme that'll ensure that nobody who ever comes into contact with my daughter will ever do her harm, isn't it?
Well, err, actually, no. I despair of it, in fact.
Along with the overwhelming burden of parental responsibility comes a huge great big long list of worst nightmares. We can all remember the names of the children who have been murdered in horrific circumstances and the thought of any child, let alone my own, going through that sort of ordeal is almost unbearable. The fact that we can remember virtually all of those children's names shows, thankfully, that this is a very rare occurrence.
I think we tend to react very emotionally, and instinctively when we think of these things that could happen, so I can see why some people might think that it's a good thing that anyone who has close contact with children, regularly, should register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority and if those working for that body should deem there is sufficient cause for concern, then that person could be banned from working with children.
The idea is that Ian Huntley, the man responsible for the Soham murders, would have been caught out by this new register because his previous charges or complaints against him would have come to light. But what if he had been identified and removed from the school premises? He'd still have lived somewhere and perhaps on another day a combination of circumstances would have presented him with the opportunity to kill random children he came into contact with.
So that's one major flaw with the new system - it may well not work and, what may be worse, it might lull parents into a false sense of security. The ISA register is based on the premise, gathered on many years of research (why, isn't it obvious?) that those who would harm children get themselves into positions where they can work closely with children. This Register is going to weed them out. But, hang on, teachers are already vetted to within an inch of their lives and very occasionally you read about one who has formed an inappropriate or abusive relationship with a pupil.
The blanket assumption that the person who drives the minibus for a youth club or the parent who helps at Brownies is in some way doing so for unscrupulous motives is highly insulting. Not only that, but how often would that person ever get to be in a situation where they'd be a danger to a child, even if they did have those sorts of motives.
Despite being the world's greatest worrier, I don't subscribe to the idea that there's a paedophile behind every tree waiting to harm my child. We've become obsessed with protecting children from a risk from strangers that pretty much isn't there. We've got all scared about taking photos of children. I remember how we were all stopped from taking photos at my daughter's last nursery sports day because of concerns - yet anyone in any of the houses opposite with malicious intent would have been able to take as many photos as they liked of the children as they ran their races. I'm angry that I lost the chance to record an important event in my child's life because of groundless panic inducing nanny state nonsense.
That was nothing compared to the hullaballoo
Anyway, I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that the Government (and although this only applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at the moment, Scotland will get its own version soon and I can't imagine for a minute it'll be much different knowing the illiberal SNP mindset)is bringing in a system which may not work, and, worse, may actually penalise the innocent.
By targeting every single one of us who works regularly with children, they create a guilty until proven innocent situation which is in direct conflict with everything our legal system has been built on. I am far more worried by this new system and its ability to ruin the reputations of innocent people than I ever was by the prospect of my daughter coming into harm at Brownies, or Swimming, or Drama, or the Dentist.
Let's look at how the ISA will make up their minds:
Applicants will be assessed using data gathered by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) (link opens in new window), including relevant criminal convictions, cautions, police intelligence and other appropriate sources.
Using this information we will decide on a case-by-case basis whether each person is suited to this work. Other appropriate sources? Gossip? Even Esther Rantzen, who set up Childline, has misgivings about the system, linked to in the article above.
"...Ms Rantzen said the whole population was being "blanketed with this extraordinary suspicion that they might be a danger to children."
She told the BBC she was also worried that the checks might "take account of rumour, gossip, unfounded allegations which may be recorded on the police computer."
If they're going to listen to rumour and gossip, then there is definitely potential for somebody's reputation being ruined completely wrongly.
I can see a situation where a man in his mid 30s, driving the minibus for his daughters' hockey team, could be barred from so doing because 20 years ago he got his couple of months' younger girlfriend pregnant when he was 16 and she was still 15and her parents complained to the Police. That would be a ridiculous overreaction but one, sadly, that could happen.
My view of the world is that people are generally good, and that's the view I want my daughter to grow up with. I don't want her to fear that every adult she comes into contact with because the State has decreed that they are worthy of suspicion until proved otherwise.
My daughter is statistically at much greater risk from being run over, particularly when she's out on her bike than she is of being harmed while at any of her activities. Does that mean we should ban cars and bikes? Of course not. Does it mean I should keep her in and encourage her to play on the Play Station rather than go climbing trees in the wood? No way. In our house it's her who tells us off for spending too much time on the computer.
It makes me angry that the Government has wasted money to bring in an illiberal, ineffective system that points the finger at all of us. Most children who are harmed face the danger in their own homes from people they know and perhaps if the resources that have gone into this register had been given to bolster up social services departments, you might have less of that going on.
It annoys me that they spend millions on this when children are suffering long term damage to their health and life chances by being brought up in poor, substandard housing with damp walls, holes in the floor, maybe no electricity because it's been cut off, or no heating. They might even be in a homeless hostel with their family. A Government that actually does something about that scandal will be worthy of all our respect.
I've heard the phrase "if it saves just one child" too often today and its evil twin "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" will be rolled out as well. I'm glad to see that Chris Huhne for the Lib Dems has expressed his concerns about this system and I hope that he's listened to. I get really concerned by the idea that whole groups of people can be demonised. We see it all the time with young people, and now it's anybody who wants to make their lives fun.
I shall leave the last word to Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, who is so affronted by this new scheme that he's stopped visiting schools. It's a shame but I can see his point.