Childcare: child’s play is now a minefield
The vetting of adults who supervise children has become excessive.
Beverly was all set to volunteer for her five-year-old daughter Mary’s school party last March. She was shocked when she learnt from a teacher that she was not welcome as she hadn’t been vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau.
“Those parents who were not vetted had to wait outside the school hall while the party went on,” recalls Beverly, adding that she felt humiliated about being treated as a “second-class-mum”.
Beverly’s experience is far from unique. Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert is still seething with anger as she tells me about a flyer sent to parents at her son’s primary school. It instructed them not to attend a children’s Christmas disco unless they were CRB checked. “The discos are known as fun-filled noisy events, not potential danger zones for children,” says Alka. There was no explanation. As far as the school was concerned, this was a common-sense precaution in a world where a climate of suspicion shapes perceptions of adult behaviour towards children.
The system of vetting adults who work with children was introduced in 2002 in the aftermath of the horrific abduction and murder of two schoolgirls in Soham. But most parents still don’t realise that it has since expanded arbitrarily and can encompass virtually any adult who wishes to come in to contact with children.
So if you are not licensed by the CRB, don’t be surprised if you are discouraged from attending your child’s activities. What astonished Alka was that so many parents have come to accept such intrusive vetting as a fact of life.
She says that many parents agreed that the vetting of parents at a school disco was unnecessary, while some described it as “just one of those daft excessive things” - yet they were prepared to tolerate it.
So how long before a “daft excessive thing” becomes institutionalised as good practice? The recently established Independent Safeguarding Authority insists that about 11.3 million people in England will be affected by a new scheme of vetting of adults.
We are increasingly encouraged to believe that only those who have been CRB-checked have passed a “paedophile test”, and those who have not cannot be trusted to come into direct contact with our children.
In our study Licensed To Hug, my co-author, Jennie Bristow, and I have found that the obsession with policing and regulating contact between grown-ups and children has created a situation where adults are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence.
I talked to numerous volunteers involved in child-care, young people’s activities and sports, who increasingly feel that they need to exercise great care to make sure that their behaviour could not be misinterpreted as that of a paedophile. One nursery worker informed me that she is quitting her chosen vocation because “I cannot be myself in this job”.
“I no longer feel comfortable about acting on my gut feelings and cuddling and reassuring a distressed infant,” she says. As far as she was concerned, if she could no longer cuddle the children in her charge and was forced to minimise physical contact with them, then her job had become “weird”.
The introduction of CRB checks is in part designed to reassure parents that children will be protected from adult paedophiles. But our research suggests that once the act of coming into contact with children is deemed so risky as to require a criminal check, suspicion towards all adults becomes intensified.
So it is not surprising that the demand for vetting has expanded and is frequently interpreted as a badge of responsibility.
One 31 year-old mum told me how the parents of her daughter’s friend casually dropped into the conversation that they were “cool” because they were CRB checked. That was their way of saying that it was all right for their daughter’s friends to play at their house.
Tragically we no longer assume that other adults will behave responsibly and kindly towards our children. The default position is always to expect the worst and therefore to minimise contact between the generations.
Adults tell us that they fear being falsely accused of causing harm and that this would also make them less likely to help when they saw a young person in danger or distress. We talked to men who, because they feel uneasy about accidentally touching a child in a swimming pool, are not sure if they should even help a youngster in trouble in the water.
One father is fed up with the “filthy looks” he gets from suspicious mothers when he takes his two-year-old son to the pool. “He’s considering stapling his police check to his forehead every time he goes out,” says his partner.
Our research also indicates that the current obsession with adult misbehaviour has a destructive impact on volunteering to work with children. When asked if they knew anybody who had been put off by the CRB process, 28 per cent said that they did.
Many of our respondents resented the implication that they were assumed to be guilty unless they possessed a licence that allowed them to come into contact with children. They also took the view that their life was being complicated by onerous paper work and the vetting procedure.
One female volunteer who runs a church-sponsored children’s holiday club felt that the vetting process was particularly inappropriate for one-off helpers who came in for the morning to make sandwiches.
Another respondent said that after she was asked to undergo a full CRB check, she decided to stop helping children in her local school with their reading. “I found another way to spend my time instead.”
Joyce used to volunteer with a project that provides activities for young offenders. She agreed to be CRB-checked and got her licence. But when she was asked to be re-checked a second time she quit. “I was fed up and resented wasting my time.”
Fortunately most people who have to undergo CRB vetting are prepared to carry on volunteering or continue with their chosen vocation. But our research shows that the way they behave and conduct themselves is profoundly influenced by the climate of suspicion that prevails.
One negative outcome that many volunteers and professionals acknowledge is that they “keep their distance” from children so that their actions could not be misinterpreted.
A volunteer involved in girl guiding said that it all makes you a lot more wary about child protection.
“That’s detrimental to your relationship with the children, because you can’t give an upset Rainbow [guide] a cuddle and they don’t quite understand why.”
Another guider said that “sometimes a Brownie just needs a cuddle when they are away from home for the first time, and I know many adults who won’t do this as they are scared it will be perceived wrongly”.
This kind of fear indicates that a growing number of adults feel constrained, awkward or uneasy about interacting with children. Many adults are confused about how to engage with children other than their own.
A crying five-year-old is no longer picked up and reassured by a nearby adult. And a six year-old boy who misbehaves will not be told off and reprimanded by passers-by. That’s not good for children or for the community.
To make matters worse, there is no evidence that licensing adults protects children from harm. All that a CRB check does is find out what an individual has done in the past. It cannot predict what someone with a licence to work with children may do in the future.
The best way to protect children is through encouraging adults to behave responsibly and take a close interest in the wellbeing of young people in their community. And that’s precisely what our culture of vetting undermines.
See the media coverage of Licensed to Hug here.
published by Daily Telegraph, 26 June 2008