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.


  1. A few things come to mind; first of all I do agree with you about the neccesity of teaching children to protect themselves, and the desirability of CRB checks to weed out the obvious undesirables. Yet the CRB system is full of older sons (who do Christian childrens camps each summer) keep having to do repeated identical forms if they do 2 camps for slightly different organisations in 2 consecutive weeks, and they can be an absolute pain if you are both young (and so don't have utility bills) and adopted (and so don't have a birth certificate). One of my daughters fell foul of the latter rule a couple of weeks ago (she is doing a child care course at college) - because her adoption certificate wasn't dated within a year of her actual birth- how common is that nowadays?
    But possible exploitation isn't just sexual... I often read news items about the financial scams that threaten via the internet, but the same daugher as above has been taken in by a family she babysits for...complicated scam leaving her (new bank account opened for college only afew weeks ago) in debt ...and she is just staggered that adults she trusted have used her in this way; perhaps we have dwelt too long on the sort of "stranger danger" that has sexual overtones and forgotten other areas.

  2. I think that is absolutely right, Julie. The only problem is knowing what to do about it. We don't want to raise children who do not trust adults at all, but on the other hand we want them to be cautious so that they do not run the risk of being exploited. As far as sexual abuse of children goes, that is of course most often a family affair, as is murder. So those most dangerous to a child do not actually need CRB checks at all. I hope nobody tells Ed Balls this, otherwise we will have to register with the Safeguarding authority to be alone with our own children!

  3. I think it's important for children to have ownership of their bodies. If they are used to adults doing things to them without permission the boundaries may become blurred. An adult once attempted to lift my child off the top of a climbing frame because they thought it was too dangerous to be right on top (it was one of those dome shaped climbing frames). He was most surprised when they protested loudly and kicked out at them when they tried to lift them off. Many adults seem to think it's OK to ignore the personal space around children (they wouldn't dream of doing something similar to an adult) and I wonder if this can make it easier for others to take advantage of children. If my child had been in imminent danger of falling and the adult was saving them from harm it would have been different, but it was clear that he only resorted to physical action when my child refused (politely) to get down because they had climbed on this frame dozens of times and knew they were safe. He was angry at being disobeyed and took action to enforce obedience.

  4. I agree, Sharon. It's a question of respect. Many adults not only think it's OK to ignore children's personal space, but to make judgments about how hungry they are, how much something hurts, or whether they need the toilet, as well as how safe they feel. Some parents take this to the extreme of hurting their children physically as a means of discipline. I'm not sure how their children are supposed to know what kind of invasion of their space, or even what kind of adult-inflicted pain, is OK and what isn't. Combine this with the unquestioning respect they are supposed to have for the authority of adults, and you have a recipe for disaster.
    I grew up in a family like this. As a child I had an elderly relative (later divorced by his wife on the grounds of violence) who used to burn the back of my hand with a hot teaspoon, for fun. I put up with this because I thought I had to, because he was an adult. I didn't know I had a choice. Imagine if he had been sexually abusing me. I was taught never to talk to strange men (not even strange women, and certainly not people I knew), but that was it.
    I have a friend who was subjected to routine genital examinations at school. God knows what they were looking for; sexual abuse, maybe? He thinks they were a good thing, because they picked up on the fact that he had an undescended testicle. He thinks that all children should have them. He has grown up to be one of those people who has no respect for others' personal space, and needs reminding all the time that he should be aware of it.