What was everybody doing?

Buried in a folder somewhere in my flat is a piece of paper certifying that I am not a sex offender. During university holidays I worked for a charity that tries to help young people with learning disabilities. Before I could start I had to be approved by Disclosure Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish government that maintains lists of people banned from working with children and disabled people, and advises organisations so they can “make safer and more informed recruitment decisions”.

I worked with children who had, inter alia, Down’s syndrome, autism and Asperger’s syndrome. As well as helping to run a summer school, I worked one-on-one with children in an effort to improve their confidence, learning and health. Giving parents a break was part of the job, as was taking advantage of Edinburgh’s cultural and sporting highlights. My work took me all over the capital. Physical contact was unavoidable – for example, when crossing busy roads. Some of the children I worked with liked to go swimming and some would need help getting changed. Parents needed to trust me to take care of their vulnerable children in vulnerable situations.

I thought that undergoing a background check was therefore eminently sensible. I understood parents’ anxiety. In part this is because it is a pretty obvious thing to understand for anyone – certified or not – who has a basic level of human empathy.

But I suspect that it is also because I myself had grown up during a time of high-profile violent and sexual crimes committed against children. The murder of James Bulger, the abuses by Gary Glitter, etc. – criminologists call these “signal crimes”, those that frame society’s conceptions of risks and dangers. At school I was warned about “stranger danger” and, later, furtively watched the withering satire of Chris Morris’s infamous Brass Eye episode about the media and its coverage of paedophilia. I had absorbed what one sociologist describes as the period’s “ambient insecurity”.

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When reading the reports of the institutional omerta towards abuse in the 1980s and before, I therefore struggle to recognise this is as the same country that I grew up in. Cognitive dissonance sets in. I haven’t known a time without widespread worry about child abuse; widespread apathy seems fanciful. How did they get away with it? What perverse sense of this-is-all-harmless-stuff pervaded? What was everybody doing?

This week Theresa May said that an “over-arching” inquiry will strive to find out. The Home Secretary told parliament that the inquiry will “consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse”. The inquiry’s scope is monumentally vast – a truth and reconciliation commission between the public and the establishment.

There are Northern Irish precedents for such wide-ranging inquiries. Hysteria, however, isn’t easy to parse. There is a danger that the inquiry is too broad to be of any practical relevance: the policy equivalent of the all-office email. We need to relentlessly pursue justice for the abused and ensure that no institution believes itself to still be above the law, while not descending into a blur of indiscriminate vengeance.

Part of that requires distinguishing past crimes from the present environment. My cognitive dissonance would not make a very good basis for a reasoned inquiry. We need to not lose sight of the progress that has been made in the past decades when it comes to the safety of children. There is much to lose as well as much to gain. In recent days I have asked myself: would I have wanted that job in this environment?

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Just over a month ago I visited several children’s centres as part of a magazine article I’m writing about child development. I spoke to mothers about various aspects of parenting. A common theme – one repeated throughout my reporting – was the notion that their childhood had been relatively safe and easy compared with their children’s, and that today they felt a strong sense of anxiety and stress.

One mother put it this way:

Things are a lot different now. We lived such a carefree childhood, to be fair, we had no worries and when I was growing up I didn’t even know what a drug addict was, to be fair, or anything like that because it just wasn’t in our faces like it is now. My son goes to secondary school and he has to travel on the bus and I panic every day. He gets home at 5:00. If he’s not in at 5:05 I’m panicking and we never had mobile phones or – if I was out my mum didn’t know where I was. It was carefree, yes, we didn’t have to worry about being mugged or beaten up or followed or – whatever. Life was a lot easier then, I think, definitely.

Another said:

[I am] more cautious, I think, and a bit more wary. I used to go out and play in the street… I would never let them to that. I am scared about what would happen.

There are many disparate reasons for these recollections, from the nature of memory itself to how family life has become more fragmented and urbanised. Boring old “traffic” comes pretty high on the list of parents’ safety concerns. Nevertheless, the idea of “stranger danger” and the fear of crime is never too far away. The influence of signal crimes on the public mood seemed to me to be all too clear.

It neither ignores the truth about what happened before nor patronises the sense of anxiety to point out that in many ways children in Britain are safer than ever before. This is not cause for complacency but it should also be taken into consideration when thinking about how to minimise abuse – we should learn lessons from the past and the present. Otherwise we risk the situation described this week by David Aaronovitch, where we lose all sense of rationality about the issue; more men will feel they can’t be trusted to help other people’s children. It does not help the most vulnerable to be in a situation whereby people are afraid to help children because they fear being perceived as harming them. Paranoia is not vigilance.

Statistics for crimes against children are hard to evaluate. The method of evaluation for most crimes has changed over the past four decades and there is consistent worry about underreporting. Nevertheless, in its latest report “How Safe Are Our Children?”, the NSPCC noted that child homicide, abductions, suicide, physical assault and sexual assault were all down over the past three decades. More people are also coming forward to notify charities and councils about potential abuse.

The charity is keen to stress that “worrying” levels of child maltreatment remain — but there seems to be a gap between public perception of the prevalence of the most violent crimes against children and the statistical reality. There is one child homicide for every 500,000 children, and roughly the same figure for abductions by strangers. “There is a fear of strangers that is not borne out by the statistics”, says one expert.

There has also been a dramatic fall in the number of accidents by children. Until 2011, they were the leading cause of death among under 15s. But today they are second in this macabre poll to deaths from cancer. The trend has been steadily downwards: in 1979, 1,100 children were killed in accidents; in 2012 it was 139, according to the Miskin Group. Hospital admissions for accidents are also declining.

None of this means we shouldn’t tirelessly prosecute allegations of past abuse. Nor does it mean we have nothing to learn from how abuses were covered up. I would merely point out, though, that we might have something to learn from why these trends have happened, too. Our horror at the past might, in part, be a reflection of the state of the present. I want to think I would still have volunteered for my job.

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What was everybody doing? Some people were committing horrific crimes, others were turning blind eyes. But others were vastly improving the lives of children.

There is an irony at the heart of this story: misplaced and exploited trust helps explain the prevalence of abuse and yet trust is what is needed to minimise it in future. From Hackney’s innovative social work department to the pilots of the family nurse partnerships, to the charity I worked for in Edinburgh, the future of caring for the most vulnerable has trust and relationships at the heart of its work. We risk failure if we forget this paradox. If we do, we have lost innocence and gained nothing.