The new vetting system for non-family members involved with children was not ‘set up by Parliament three years ago after a full and proper debate’ (Editorial: To Vet or Not to Vet? October 2009) because no government has been willing to debate the issues for nearly two decades.
The Lessons of History
When Judge Hughes (1986) undertook his enquiry into sexual abuse in Northern Ireland children’s homes he found that virtually every offender had had a clean record on appointment to the post in which they carried out the abuse. He therefore argued against pre-appointment vetting, proposing better arrangements for preventing and detecting abuse within children’s homes instead.
But the Warner Report (Committee of Inquiry, 1992) recommended pre-appointment vetting both for offences and through psychological testing. Since then government policy has been driven by the ill-informed nostrums of the Warner Report rather than by the carefully researched recommendations of Judge Hughes.
Both Frank Beck (Kirkwood, 1993) and Malcolm Thompson (Poupard and Jordan, 1993) had clean records on appointment and one must assume that Vanessa George also had a clean record when she was appointed to her post. In Frank Beck’s case, his manager, Chris Beddoe, raised concerns about him in the early 1980s but Dorothy Edwards, the Director of Social Services, refused to investigate them (Kirkwood, 1993) and Chris resigned in disgust and moved to another authority. In Malcolm Thompson’s case Poupard and Jordan (1993) laid some of the blame at the ‘macho’ management style of the department which enabled Malcolm Thompson to avoid proper scrutiny.
As both Hughes (1986) and Kirkwood (1993) point out, there were key failures of communication and co-ordination of information within the departments responsible for the establishments where the abuse took place.
To put all this in context, only 20% of sex offences are against other people’s children and only a third of those convicted of such offences have previous convictions. 40% of sex offences are against children in the same family and only one in seven of such offenders have a criminal record (Hood et al., 2002). In other words, even if vetting were extended to family members and not just confined to non-family carers, it would at best only pick up around one in five of those who might ultimately be convicted of offences against children.
In fact, if we focus on the proportion of offenders rather than the proportion of those convicted, the proportion is much smaller; among adult victims only 21% of women and 7% of men informed the police about the worst incident against them, while 34% of women and 62% of men had told no one about the incident (Walby and Allen, 2004).
Though we have no comparable evidence for children other than that male victims of female sexual abuse, who account for around one in five of child victims, are very unlikely to disclose it (Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite, 2006), anecdotal evidence suggests that children are, for a variety of reasons, no more likely to disclose abuse than adults.
For example, particularly if the abuse began when they were too young to understand that it was abuse or the relationship with the abuser brings other benefits for which they are prepared to put up with the abuse or they are too ashamed to disclose the abuse, they may never talk about it. In any case, some believe that they will not be believed because the abuser has a particular status in their family or social circle and, even where they are, the disclosure may alarm parents who may forbid them to continue with certain activities in which they want to take part.
The idea therefore that vetting will have more than a marginal effect on levels of abuse would be laughable if it were not so serious.
So What Would Help?
Rodriguez-Srednicki and Twaite (2006) point out that infants and toddlers are more likely to be abused in single parent, low income families whereas adolescents are more likely to be abused in two parent, middle income families. Though there are instances where abuse starts in one age range and continues into others, most adolescent abuse starts in adolescence.
Yet single parent, low income families in the UK have repeatedly been demonised by governments whether for alleged immorality or allegedly being workshy. By contrast, in Denmark, for example, such families are given significant state support in the form, among other things, of assistance with child-rearing.
And, as the backlash against the IVB has shown, the middle classes will always object to intervention in their lives much as they did a century ago when the NSPCC was struggling to be allowed to intervene in families and was only permitted to do so as long as they only intervened in working class families (Crompton, 1992) .
That said, a major background factor in sexual abuse is emotional, rather than sexual, – i.e. abuse which has creates the disturbance in relationships which enables sexual abuse to be considered by the offender, and sometimes by the victim, as acceptable. That can be addressed by facilitating secure attachments between parents and children, helping parents to mentor their children’s social development so that they do not enter into, or become victims of, abusing relationships and creating opportunities for children to establish positive peer group relationships (Ladd, 2005).
Most of the difficulties children have in adolescence which are themselves the breeding grounds for abuse of all kinds have their origins much earlier in the child’s life, sometimes before they reach school age (Ladd, 2005) but mostly while they are of primary school age, and some of these can be reversed by interventions in areas such as income and housing (Rutter, 1978).
It will never be possible to remove all the situations in which people may be tempted to abuse other people, but successive governments could have done far more to ameliorate conditions such as low income and poor housing, lack of child care support and lack of support for children in primary schools and so address the issues which are known to create problems in adolescence.
Still Missing the Main Target
Governments in the 19th century and the authors of both the majority and minority reports of the 1905-9 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress focused their attention on the tiny minority of the able-bodied poor who made occasional use of poor law facilities rather than on the overwhelming majority of recipients of poor law support who were not able-bodied (Crowther, 1981). Similarly, successive governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have chosen to focus their attention on the 5% of known sex offenders who repeatedly commit offences against other people’s children rather than on dealing with the conditions in which the other 95% of known sex offenders, and the possibly even greater number of unknown sex offenders, commit their offences.
This is not to deny the benefits of the government initiatives to the potential victims of this tiny group of offenders but the IVB debate has, from the government’s point of view, usefully distracted attention from how very little they are prepared to do in this area for the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual abuse.
Committee of Inquiry (1992) Choosing with care: quality assurance in social services departments London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office The Warner Report
Crompton, I (1992) Child sexual abuse: politics, ideology and social work practice Surbiton: SCA Publications
Crowther, M A (1981) The workhouse system 1834-1929: the history of an English social institution London: Batsford
Hood, R, Shute, S, Feilzer, M and Wilcox, A (2002) Reconviction rates of serious sex offenders and assessments of their risk Home Office Findings 164. London: Home Office
Hughes, His Honour Judge W (1986) Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels Belfast: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
Kirkwood, A (1993) The Leicestershire Inquiry 1992 Leicester: Leicestershire County Council The Report of an Inquiry into Aspects of the Management of Children’s Homes in Leicestershire between 1973 and 1986
Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press
Poupard, S and Jordan, M (1993) A Review of Malcolm Thompson’s Employment by Sheffield City Council Sheffield: Sheffield Area Child Protection Committee. Report of an Independent Review
Rodriguez-Srednicki, O and Twaite, J A (2006) Understanding, assessing, and treating adult victims of childhood abuse Oxford: Jason Aronson
Rutter, M (1978) Early sources of security and competence In J S Bruner and A Garton (Eds) Human Growth and Development Chapter 2, pp. 33-61. Oxford: Clarendon Press Wolfson College Lectures 1976
Walby, S and Allen, J (2004) Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: ﬁndings from the British Crime Survey Home Office Research Study 276 London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate