Friday, 23 October 2009
Stranger danger - the dangerous myth
Hardly a day seems to pass without somebody raising objections to the idea that all adults working with children, even voluntarily, should be checked in case they pose a danger to children. Letters to newspapers detail sad stories of elderly grandmothers teaching in Sunday School, kind hearted men who give up their Saturdays to coach junior football teams or famous authors visiting schools, all of whom are now apparently required to be checked by the police or some other agency. The complaints are likely to grow a good deal louder in the next year or so, once the Independent Safeguarding Authority is up and running. It is state interference run wild, part of the creeping surveillance society. Or is it?
One of the most enduring and popular myths of our modern society is that of "Stranger Danger". This peculiar idea seeks to persuade children as young as three that the greatest threat to their safety and wellbeing is posed by "The Stranger". Adults too, enthusiastically buy in to this horribly misleading and foolish belief system.
For many people in this country, child abuse is still something perpetrated by unshaven middle aged men who hang around primary schools carrying bags of sweets which they use to lure little girls behind some bushes. The truth is however, that the people who sexually abuse, rape and murder children are, almost invariably, well known to them. Out of the seventy or eighty children who die each year in homicides in Britain, only ten are likely to be killed by strangers. This is a tiny number which has remained constant for over thirty years.
Which brings us to the current fuss about CRB checks. Because if we as adults follow our children in accepting the thesis that stranger equals danger, then we are all too likely to accept the natural corollary; familiar adult equals safety. This means that mothers will eye an unidentified male sitting near the swings with suspicion, but entirely overlook the lifeguard at the swimming pool, the school caretaker and the helper at the Sunday School. In short, it is a recipe for disaster.
One only has to ask young children about hypothetical situations in which they might find themselves, in order to see the problem. When asked what they would do if they were offered sweets or a lift in a car by a stranger, most answer correctly. Almost without exception they would refuse. Now try asking about a situation involving a neighbour or teacher. The certainties have evaporated. Why? Because these are not "Strangers" of course. Yet these very people, the neighbour and teacher, are statistically far more likely to abuse them than any stranger in the park.
It was the murder of two little girls by their school caretaker, no stranger to them and whose home was accordingly perceived by them as safe, which provided the impetus for the setting up of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. This is no overkill. Already most people whose work brings them into contact with children need to have CRB checks. Critics say that these prove nothing and that just because a man has no convictions for sexual offences, this does not prove him to be a safe person as regards children. This is true. However, the experience of voluntary organisations in this field are instructive.
Most groups have had the situation of an individual approaching them who is very enthusiastic about working with children. On the realisation that a CRB check will be necessary, some applicants simply fade away. It is hard not to conclude that a potential abuser has thus been deterred. After all, look at this process from the point of view of the paedophile. For ordinary people, a CRB check is another piece of bureaucratic nonsense, no more than a mild irritation. For the predatory paedophile though, it means actually drawing the attention of the police to him, getting his name into the system. It cannot help but deter an awful lot of unsuitable people from applying to work with children.
Inevitably, some good volunteers will be lost by the introduction of more stringent checks. This is a shame, but it is probably a price worth paying if it stops only a few sexual predators coming into contact with children. We also need to look at our approach to the way that we warn children about the danger of sexual molestation. Less focus upon "The Stranger" and more discussion about inappropriate behaviour by any adult would probably be a good beginning. Things are definitely getting more difficult for abusers, but with a little effort we can make them more difficult still.