Rule 15: Not everyone you know could be a paedophile

Allowing everyone to vet their neighbours and partners won’t save children from abuse, but it will have a poisonous effect on community life.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Imagine this scenario. You are a man going out with a single mother of a little girl. You like the child, and have made an effort to develop a (perfectly wholesome) relationship with her. You offer to look after her one evening while her mother has some much-needed rest and relaxation. Her mother says: ‘Great idea darling; I’d better just check with the police whether you are a registered sex offender.’ Would your relationship survive such a serious slur on your personality?

Or imagine it the other way around. You’re the mother, and your new partner offers to babysit for your daughter. Without telling him, you ask the police to run a quiet check to see whether he has ever been convicted of molesting children. Even if his record comes back clear, would you ever feel completely comfortable with this man? The thought is out there already; and if that doesn’t bother you, the deceit and suspicion that you have exercised would be enough to make you feel no small measure of guilt.

Such are the scenarios that are ushered in by the government’s latest terrible child protection policy: a policy that would make castrating paedophiles upon conviction seem rational and humane. In what has been dubbed ‘Sarah’s Law’, following the murder in 2000 of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender, a year-long pilot scheme has been rolled out in the English districts of Warwickshire, Cambridgeshire, Cleveland, and Hampshire. Parents, carers and guardians in these areas now have the right to ask the police whether somebody who has access to their children has ever been convicted for sex offences (1). Providing the police think that the information is relevant, they will inform the concerned parent – while issuing dire threats that the parent will be dragged to court should she pass this information to anybody else.

There are so many things wrong with this scheme that it is difficult to list them all: but here are the top four.

1) It won’t stop people from molesting children

As Frank Furedi and I recently argued in Licensed to Hug (2), a critique of the national CRB-check scheme that vets all adults whose work or volunteering brings them into contact with children, the central practical premise of mass vetting systems – that they will prevent child abuse – is wrong. The ‘stranger danger’ of the predatory paedophile is extremely rare; and in such cases that abuse does happen, some paedophiles will be molesting children for the first time, while others will never have been caught doing it. Therefore a law that looks at someone’s past convictions for child sexual offences can never hope to prevent all child sexual offences from occurring in the future.

The inevitable failure of this law simply breeds more and more demands for checks and regulation of people who have contact with children – as has been seen in the extension of the national vetting scheme from teachers to Brownie leaders to the boyfriend or neighbour next door. The most widespread impact of this policy will not be to save children, but to breed a poisonous distrust within communities and into people’s relationships with their intimate and trusted partners.

2) It creates and reinforces suspicion between adults who are simply trying to help one another out

Just as volunteers have been put off from working with children by the suspicious bureaucracy of the national vetting scheme, so this Sarah’s Law raises the question of why anybody would bother pursuing a relationship with a single mother, or offering the odd bit of babysitting to their neighbour, given the kind of suspicion such offers of help are likely to attract.

This leaves the people surely most in need of some adult solidarity and support – single mothers – even more alone within our communities and lonely inside their houses, discouraged from establishing perfectly normal relationships by the idea that it is their duty to mistrust anybody who wants to come close to them. It is hard to think of anything that could have a more destructive impact upon people’s ability to build up a family life and network of friends and confidantes.

3) It places an intolerable burden upon the parent privy to this information

It could be argued (and no doubt will be) that parents can choose whether or not to seek information about the shady past of their lovers, friends or neighbours; that nobody is forcing them to run a police check or to know its outcome. But in today’s hyper-sensitive parenting culture, people feel instinctively compelled to ‘do what is best for their child’ by erring on the safe side.

One may have doubts about the effectiveness of and motivations behind the national vetting scheme; but once vetting has become a normal part of community life, the question of whether a voluntary organisation / childminder / teaching assistant has been CRB-checked becomes something that you routinely ask: and if you don’t, it’s with the nagging fear that you are taking a risk that may come back to haunt you.

Implicitly, Sarah’s Law will compel parents to ask for the information to which they are entitled – with all the destructive consequences for the relationship they are checking out that come with mistrust and paranoia. Worse still, if the information is bad, they are prevented by law from telling anybody – leaving them without friends in whom they can confide, and worried that other children in their community may be at risk from the man just down the road.

4) Those who criticise it have done so out of a prejudice about parents as ‘the mob’

Apart from the predictable ‘it doesn’t go far enough’, the main criticism of this policy by the child protection industry and other lawmakers is that information about convicted paedophiles, once given to a parent, will spread like wildfire through local communities, causing vigilante action by housing-estate types with baseball bats who can’t even spell the word ‘paedophile’.

This fear betrays a prejudice about people that is almost as lowlife as the notion that they are either all paedophiles or likely to have sexual relationships with paedophiles. The idea seems to be that people need to be forced, by law, to keep to themselves information that the authorities cannot keep confidential; and that the havoc and destruction caused to individuals’ lives by running police checks on people’s boyfriends is fine, whereas holding angry local demonstrations against the pervert on the corner is not acceptable at all.

The double standards of this approach, and its essential immorality, is breathtaking. If somebody finds out through official channels that her neighbour is a convicted sex offender, surely she has a moral duty to tell her friends, who will also have small children and feel they have a ‘right to know’? There might be riots – but whose fault is that? Not the concerned single parent, who has only tried to act as a responsible mother in the way that policymakers say that she should; but the policymakers, who have done their very best to whip up and inflame irrational paedophile panics that do nobody any good.

The government should not pilot Sarah’s Law. It should scrap it, now, while the damage caused by this policy can still be prevented. Once it is out there, it can never be undone.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the new website, Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Sex offender alerts plan launched, BBC News, 15 September 2008

(2) Licensed to Hug, by Frank Furedi and Jennie Bristow, was published by Civitas in June 2008. Read the introduction here

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Topics Politics


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