Do parents and teachers have the right to information which may protect children?

I am a parent, a teacher, a qualified therapist and a child protection specialist. I worked for ChildLine* in its early days; I have also worked with Michelle Elliott at Kidscape*.  I have many years’ experience of the devastation which sexual abuse can wreak on a surviving child-victim and their family but I can only imagine the bleak despair that parents feel if their child is then murdered.

Sarah Payne was a little girl who was brutally murdered after being physically and sexually abused. The public were allowed for the first time to see how much the Police attempted to include families in their hunt for a missing child and in this instance, the subsequent murder enquiry. There was news coverage of each development as it happened. None of this disguised the fact that a small child had been killed despite being in a very rural setting away from the urban jungle which everyone considers to be the more dangerous environment.

Campaigning for law change

Sarah’s parents and the News of the World newspaper campaigned for a change in the law governing confidentiality and privacy.
This is what the campaigners say they want:

  • Controlled access to information which includes a series of measures and reforms.
  •  A legal right for parents to know the name of every serious child sex offender living in their communities.
  • Severe penalties for misuse of this information.

There is limited and guarded support amongst MPs for this campaign and several have put forward reasons why such a law would be impossible to uphold. One strong negative is that it would only identify offenders who have been caught, found guilty and imprisoned for a considerable length of time for their previous crimes. Those who escaped due to a technicality or served a lighter sentence as a result of legal bargaining would not necessarily have their names added to the list of child sex offenders deemed dangerous.

Noted leaders in the field proffer cautious concerns:

Michele Elliot (BBC News Dec 2001)

‘I think for predatory serial paedophiles it’s vital that the community knows where they are”. However, she said such a law could not work for all paedophiles. "I think it is impractical and probably impossible with 110,000 convicted child sex offenders to monitor them all.  But I think, if handled properly, it can be done”. She said the US equivalent of Sarah’s Law, Megan’s Law, had been shown to work. "I don’t think any serial dangerous paedophile should ever be allowed to live in a community with children."

Harry Fletcher Assistant General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) :

"I understand why victims want a Sarah’s law but it wouldn’t work”. He said last year’s News of the World campaign to name and shame paedophiles had had detrimental effects. "Sex offenders were lost because they went underground. Third parties were abused because they looked like the photographs of sex offenders.’

There are few people who actually consider this to be a workable piece of legislation. The difficulties we face are complicated and the fact that we also have to accept that there are an unknown number of sex abusers who have not been caught does not ease our guilt or our desire for ‘something’ to happen.

Defining sex abusers

The first issue is the definition of a child sex offender.

“The actual offences which make an offender a sex offender are those listed in Part I of the Sexual Offenders Act 1997. The 1997 Act provided the framework for a sex offender register where offenders who had committed a relevant offence against a minor would have to register their personal details with the local police station. Those who are defined as sexual offenders are those who:
(a)       have been convicted of a relevant offence,
(b)       have been found not guilty of a relevant offence by reason of insanity or disability,
(c)        have been cautioned for a relevant offence,
(d)       have been convicted of a relevant offence outside the UK. ‘Relevant offences’ are defined in Schedule I of the 1997 Act. The main examples are rape, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13, unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 16, incest by a man, indecent assault and indecent conduct towards a child. For it to be a relevant offence it is necessary that the victim was under the age of 18”
.  (1998 Alisdair A. Gillespie., first Published in Web Journal of Current Legal Issues in association with Blackstone Press Ltd.)

Within our legal system, there is a minefield of bureaucracy waiting to trip up any unsuspecting parent or campaigner. The above is a very small example of what lies in wait. It is a fact that only a minority of child sexual abuse cases get to court. It is also a fact that the most dangerous offenders are not necessarily the ones in prison; they are the careless ones. The research carried out to produce a list of identifiable features or traits of child sex offenders is flawed inasmuch as studies can only be conducted on those who are caught and proven guilty.

An addiction building up from small beginnings

The people who rape and degrade children are evil. That might not be an acceptable psychological term, but it is one that is apt.  Most murderers and abusers begin in small ways. Evidence shows that serial killers step up the pace through a series of victims. It is quite natural to assume that child sex offenders do the same. I have never been able to think of individuals who expose themselves to children or anyone in a vulnerable position, for example, alone on the night train, walking home at dusk, or waiting for a parent to collect them from school as amusing sad individuals. This could be the beginning of behaviour that will lead to consequences as serious as stealing childhood or even a life.

This is where the work should begin in my opinion. Sex offence is an addictive behaviour. There is therapeutic support for other forms of addiction but very little for these addicts. Everyone addicted to something, whether it be nicotine, alcohol, drugs or sexual abuse knows that they are indulging in something that is harmful. All of them make choices to remain addicted. No one can excuse their behaviour even when it controls them.

Any of these behaviours have consequences reaching far beyond the control of the addicts. There isn’t an addiction that remains exclusively within the addict’s control. Nicotine affects health either as a cancer or respiratory condition. It shortens life. If the addict is a parent or worse, a child, they have already blighted the lives of those within their family circle by possibly dying too soon or giving permission for this behaviour to be copied by the next generation. Gamblers aren’t always lucky; drinkers don’t always take the bus rather than drive when drunk; child sex offenders don’t always walk away whilst their victim is still breathing.

Therapy cannot cure an addiction; it can only make the addict more aware of their behaviour and facilitate their learning strategies to avoid repeating the same destructive patterns. Alcoholics must stay away from alcohol. Child sex offenders must stay away from children.

Reaction and action

Another serious consideration is the reaction of people once they know that there is a convicted child abuser living within their midst. Some people will use any excuse to indulge in violence; there is such a thing as mob rule and I think this information cannot help but find its way into the wrong hands.

I actually don’t believe that convicted child abusers should be allowed to return to their homes especially if there are children within the neighbourhood. I don’t care about their rights. They were found guilty of serious offences against children and unfortunately their spouses, partners, parents and children must deal with that. I have worked with families where the convicted abuser lived locally. Once they had served their sentence, they returned home as if nothing had happened. The victim’s families were the ones who felt they had to move in order to protect their children and feel safer. There is currently no legal action that can be taken to prevent this.

I don’t wish to imply that I think that convicted abusers should just be barred from returning home as a punishment. I think it should be a condition for staying out of prison. They should have to live in closed communities and attend sessions designed to assist in altering their behaviour. They should be made to work hard and face the reality of their actions. They should be forced to have a chip implanted in a similar way to domestic pets so they can be recognised immediately by the police even if disguised.

I believe that those who employ convicted child offenders to work where there are children because they feel they have ‘learned their lesson and have repented’ should also be held accountable. Abusers are still the ones who remain protected. I don’t believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Sometimes the risks are too horrendous to contemplate. In our society, the victims and their families are the ones making the efforts. The justice system is always years behind the times.

Tony Blair said in the introduction to Every Child Matters,* that too many mistakes have been made especially where the welfare and protection of children are concerned. These are magnificent sentiments. They acknowledge that all children and young people have stated very clearly that they want to feel safe and protected.

To achieve this, strategies and projects are being developed country-wide. We have a new agenda on domestic violence; we have more information about the consequences of lack of consistent care for young children.

We still don’t have a directive that will look specifically at preventing child abuse. We still don’t have a national curriculum which includes information and training on self-protection for children it remains an optional item for schools. We remain, sadly a reactive rather than a proactive nation.

Sarah’s Law could be a small step in the right direction. I think we need something even stronger.

  • ChildLine is the free and confidential 24-hour helpline for children and young people in the UK.
  • Kidscape is a registered UK charity committed to keeping children safe from harm or abuse.
  • Every Child Matters is the Government Green Paper underpinned by the Children Act 2004 aimed at supporting and enhancing the lives of children and young people.

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