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Abuse of trust

Codes regulating the behaviour of those who work with children rest on a broader suspicion of adults, says Frank Furedi

'If a man says he wants to work with young boys, people jump to one conclusion.' Jo Tupper of the British Scout Association was explaining why the Scouts face a shortage of adult volunteer leaders. And research carried out at Hertfordshire University suggests that fear of being unjustly labelled a pervert is turning men away from careers as primary school teachers. Mary Thornton, who conducted the study, claims that many male students on teacher training programmes felt uneasy about how they should handle young children. Could they escort children to the toilet, or change wet underwear? Should they cuddle a distressed child - should they even be alone with a child?

From voluntary organisations to primary education, well-meaning adults are put off from playing a valuable role instructing and inspiring young children. At a conference organised by Playlink and Portsmouth City Council in November last year, the delegates were enthusiastic professionals committed to improving children's lives through outdoor play. But several of the playworkers felt that their role was diminished by bureaucratic rules designed to regulate their contact with children. One playworker complained that she often could not do 'what's right' by the children, because if she did not follow the rules it would threaten her career prospects.

Nursery workers, teachers, play leaders and voluntary sector workers report that one-to-one encounters between adults and children are increasingly perceived as an invitation for misbehaviour. The most innocent attempt by a teacher to comfort an upset child can be endowed with a malevolent meaning; and since it is simply impossible to avoid physical contact with primary school children, teachers are often placed in a vulnerable position. In some cases, teachers have been warned against putting suncream on young children in case this leads to false accusations of abuse. This might seem paranoid until you consider that, according to teachers' union leaders, every year hundreds of classroom staff face just such accusations.

There was a time when parents assumed that nurseries were safe places where caring teachers looked after their toddlers. But now, anxiety over the intentions of child carers has encouraged the introduction of hi-tech internet cameras in a number of nurseries. That some parents now feel the need to spy on their children and their carers shows how little they feel able to trust anybody other than themselves.

A government report published in September 1999 allows sports coaches to give teenagers a celebratory hug during the game or rub an injury. Any other form of physical contact has to be avoided. I recently discovered that an acquaintance who used to manage a children's Sunday football team has given up his post, having found that the rules and regulations laid down to guard against abuse made managing the team a 'permanent trial'. The team has since folded - nobody else has been prepared to volunteer.

Even religious organisations have adopted guidelines that minimise contact between children and grown-ups. In Australia, Roman Catholic priests have been banned from having any private contact with lone children, and guidelines drawn up with the approval of the Vatican mean that confessionals have to be fitted with glass viewing panels. Things are marginally better in Britain - volunteers working with church-related organisations are not banned from being with a child alone, just so long as the door is not closed. All this has consequences. Reverend Gerald Kirkham, rector of St Michael's Church in the village of Northchapel, West Sussex, was forced to disband his choir of up to 20 children because, under the new code, at least two adult chaperones were needed to attend the weekly rehearsals.

Those who work with children are automatically undermined by codes that regulate their behaviour to this degree. If it is assumed that professional carers need to be told how to relate to the children in their charge, why should parents - or children - trust in their authority and integrity? But it is not only professional carers or volunteers who are affected by these codes. At their core is a more general distrust of adults. It is assumed that adults cannot be expected to respect the line between childhood and adulthood; that they need to be told what almost all of them know by instinct - that children are vulnerable creatures who need protection, not to be treated as equals. This means comforting a distraught child with a cuddle just as much as it means not abusing those young people who have put their trust in you.

The negative image of adulthood enshrined in codes aiming to prevent 'abuses of trust' has far-reaching implications. The healthy development of any community depends on the quality of the bonds that link the different generations. When those bonds are subjected to a culture of suspicion, the ensuing confusion will threaten the very future of a community. After all, relations of warmth and affection are inherent in family relationships, and even in relations between children and professional or volunteer carers. If an adult's touch of a child comes to be regarded with anxiety, how can these relations be sustained?

It should really come as no surprise that some children have begun to play off this general distrust of adults to make life difficult for those they don't like. Most children are enterprising creatures, for whom adult insecurities can provide an opportunity to exercise their power. A commuter friend of mine recounted his confrontation with a young child playing with the door of a moving train. 'You can't tell me what to do, because you are a stranger' was the child's response. A few, fortunately very few, go a step further and make a malicious accusation against their teacher. But it is not their fault. They are merely manipulating a dirty-minded world created by obsessive adults.

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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