Stuart Waiton: We must trust instincts on childhood

Threatening people with prosecution if they fail to act on suspicions of child abuse will not help the situation, says Stuart Waiton

The bureaucratisation of adult-child relationships has undermined our sense of personal judgment. Picture: PA

Keir Starmer the ex-director of public prosecutions in England has ignited a debate by arguing that teachers and other professionals who do not report child abuse suspicions should face prosecution. There is a gap in the law, he argued, and by making it an offence not to report suspicions, we would “focus people’s minds”. Failure to report it, Starmer believes, should lead to at least a fine and possibly a short jail sentence.

Mr Starmer is reacting to cases where there have been clear signs of abuse where nothing has been done about it, as with the case of Daniel Pelka who was starved to death and beaten over a protracted period of time, all in view of a variety of professionals. But is throwing the law at this problem the right approach?

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Strangely, when it comes to child safety concerns, this is what we have been doing for two decades. After the James Bulger killing, we were told that “something must be done”. When the New Labour government gained power in 1997, they obliged and abolished doli incapax – the failsafe ruling that prevented children under the age of 14 years old from being tried for criminal offences. The embarrassing result is that the UK now has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility, with ten-year-olds being put on trial and held morally responsible for adult acts.

Following the school killings in Dunblane, schools were turned into fortresses, with CCTV, wire fencing and security doors becoming the norm. It was also this extreme one-off event that resulted in vetting being introduced across the board for all adults who came into contact with children.

Following another extreme event, the brutal killing of Victoria Climbie in 2001, the Labour government once again introduced far-reaching legislation under the aegis of “Every Child Matters”. This legislation elevated the issue of child safety and protection across all professions where contact with children occurred.

For some critics, this was seen as institutionalising distrust, encouraging professionals to view all parents as potential child abusers.

In Scotland, we have an equivalent in the “Getting it right for every child” (GIRFEC) initiative. Additionally, the Scottish Government is now proposing that every child be given a named (professional) guardian from birth, to further protect them from potentially abusive domestic situations.

This endless elevation of child safety has produced a world in which all adults are viewed, and treated, as potential paedophiles, and we are encouraged to view all children through the prism of abuse and protection. One widely recognised outcome of this is that adults, especially men, are less and less inclined to approach or relate to other people’s children. Even when a child is in trouble, the worrying trend is that we “walk on by”.

Just as problematic, in terms of the never-ending legislation thrown at child safety, is the dehumanising consequences of a world made up of procedures. This proceduralised state helps to explain how four-year-old Daniel Pelka was beaten and starved to death in full view of nurses, teachers and other adults in Coventry last year.

Each professional appears to have filled out the correct form, followed the correct procedure and ticked the right box every time that Daniel arrived with a broken bone or was seen going through the bins for some food. Nevertheless, the result was Daniel’s death.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratisation of adult-child relationships has undermined our sense of personal judgment and responsibility and has warped our natural inclination to look after children. Peter Wanless of the NSPCC made this very point regarding Daniel’s death, arguing that when a skinny child is scavenging for food, alarm bells need to ring.

“It’s simply common sense. But people don’t trust their instincts,” he noted. The right form was filled, but nobody took actual responsibility for this starving child.

Additionally, the elevation of “safety” across the board, as the only framework for directing our actions, has, at times, had the perverse effect of adults not acting when they should, not taking a “risk” themselves in order to ensure their own safety. This is one of the reasons that Victoria Climbie, and other children have died, with police officers and social workers refusing to visit families who they perceived to be a threat.

Our caring instincts regarding children have been undermined. We no longer see adults rubbing children’s hair affectionately in the street, we will no longer pick a child up who has hurt themselves or tell children off or talk to them in the street. Even in nurseries and schools, we find new “touch policies” being introduced to help us to know when and when not to cuddle a distressed child. Essentially, the child safety industry has resulted in a world of adults who are more distant from children and who no longer act normally around them.

Worse still perhaps, the heightened anxiety about abuse and the ever expanding meaning of abuse to include things like shouting at children means that it is increasingly likely that professionals will fail to see the wood for the trees. As every slight incident gets reported as abuse, the very rare cases of serious abuse get lost in a mountain of paperwork.

Keir Starmer’s idea of throwing the law at this problem will only make things worse; it will make the obsession with child safety more intense, and further undermine adults’ ability to use their instincts and judgment when dealing with children in their care. • Dr Stuart Waiton is a criminology and sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee