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Training in distrust

The Home Office's new guidelines on working with children can only increase suspicion of trainers and supervisors, explains Tiffany Jenkins

The government launched its new 'Guidance for preventing abuse of trust' at the NSPCC headquarters in September, as part of the imminent Sexual Offences Bill. The guidelines state that all organisations involved with young or vulnerable people should have codes of conduct to protect against 'abusive' relationships, and this latest Home Office initiative was greeted with vocal support from organisations like Sport England and the Netball Association.

Given the plethora of codes regulating the relationship between adults and the children in their care that already exist in sports organisations, there seems little need for Home Office intervention. The English Cricket Board launched its child protection guidelines this summer, and just last Christmas the Amateur Swimming Association updated its code of ethics to include guidelines that address paedophilia. Similar codes have been officially discussed, if not yet implemented, in just about every sport, from table tennis to rugby. But why are these codes seen as so crucial?

It is not as though there has been a dramatic increase in cases of abuse. Professor Celia Brackenridge, former captain of the British Lacrosse team, is an academic at the forefront of the work on abuse in sports, and plays an advisory role, together with the NSPCC, to sports bodies. Even she contends that there is a 'lack of knowledge about the precise risks' of sexual abuse in sport (Sport Education and Society, 1998). Nor do these codes of conduct replace or propose changes in the law, which is very clear about what is and is not criminal behaviour.

Rather than responding to a problem of child abuse in sports organisations, these codes of behaviour are simply reacting to rising suspicion about adults who work with children. As adults who play and work with children have their motivations scrutinised, much adult behaviour has become very cautious and uncertain. Consequently, over the past two decades adult and child relationships have become increasingly difficult and confused, while anxious parents worry about whether they can entrust their children to the adult in charge.

This has had a particular impact on sport, due to the nature of training. Coaches are often men who spend a lot of time with children, with whom they work closely and physically. Indeed, a close and often antagonistic relationship is essential to pushing the child. And it is this sort of behaviour that is often in the spotlight. As Brackenridge states, 'the risks of sexual abuse are thought to be higher where associated with an authority figure' (Women Sports Foundation factsheet, 1999).

The government guidelines hope to tackle the growing uncertainty trainers, teachers and parents feel about what is and is not acceptable behaviour. But far from putting everybody's minds at rest, they formalise the distrust that already exists.

Guidelines stating how a responsible adult should behave towards a child apply to everybody, and tend to flag up normal behaviour as an indication of potentially suspicious behaviour. For example, every set of guidelines states that there should be no occasion when an adult is alone with a child. A child can no longer accept a lift home with his or her coach unless the coach himself is supervised. The adult cannot see the child in his care to discuss the child's progress without another adult in the room: the trainer has to have some kind of extra babysitter, watching him and making sure nothing untoward occurs. All adults are presumed to be potential abusers, and nobody is presumed not to be an abuser.

Any form of manual support (supporting a gymnast for example) has to be provided openly. Even when all coaching is in front of a vigilant audience, 'the teacher should be extremely careful as it is difficult to maintain hand positions when the child is constantly moving' (Amateur Swimming Association code of ethics, 1998). And anybody taking photographs (including parents) at swimming tournaments has to seek accreditation with the event organiser (ideally five days before the event), giving full details of who they are and why they want to photograph children swimming in a competition.

The presumption at the heart of all the guidelines is that no relationship between adult and child can be trusted. Adults are presumed not to be able to differentiate between right and wrong behaviour, and so more checks and safeguards are brought in. But the only consequence of this can be to create further problems for anybody working with children. If we cannot trust anybody, how can we let our kids go to school, gym, training or band practice where there is another adult in charge? Indeed, how can anybody trust us to be in charge of children? And if we are the adults supervising our colleague, can we work alongside them if we cannot trust them, and if they cannot trust us?

Most guidelines have a section acknowledging the potential problem of false allegations; and it seems sensible that there should be safeguards and protections for coaches or supervisors. But these safeguards only amount to yet more rules on how supervisors should behave. In the name of avoiding false allegations, any behaviour that could be interpreted as wrong is forbidden - regardless of whether the behaviour is actually wrong.

People are advised not to put themselves in a position where allegations, whether justified or unfounded, could be made. The Home Office gives these suggestions about how false accusations could be avoided:

'For some organisations or situations this might include procedures to minimise time spent alone with one individual apart from others; for others it could involve advice covering conduct where people are necessarily alone together, such as counselling and perhaps building in checks through supervision or one-off checks, etc.'

According to the Home Office, then, avoiding false allegations of abuse means working on the basis that everybody who works with children is a potential abuser.

Such guidelines as these are both impractical and fundamentally damaging to the relationships that coaches need to build up with the children they work with. As the Amateur Swimming Association states in its code of ethics, 'The relationship between coach and performer relies heavily on mutual trust and respect'. Such a shame that this trust is being eroded, on the basis of nothing more than unfounded suspicions.

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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