blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, December 19, 2014

You can't be too careful ... or can you?

I don't usually do this in my blog, but I'm starting this post with a quotation from the Bible (the King James version, because that's the one I know best):
And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
I went for an "Interview" earlier this week, to be checked out as a potential volunteer who'd be spending time with young children. Not much time, actually, as the volunteering I'm applying for would only be for a few hours, once a month, in the company of other adults and the children's parents. Even so, the latest regulations oblige everyone to comply with the investigation system.

How far things have changed since I last volunteered to work with small children, some 15 years ago, was a revelation to me. Not only do I now have to be interviewed by the social services beforehand, I also have to hand in my CV and an application form, have to sign two statements regarding confidentiality and non-violence policies and undergo not one but two police (RCMP) record checks. The second of these, I was told, the Vulnerable Sector Check (i.e., to ascertain whether I am fit to be left in the company of young children) will probably take three months to be processed. I have to hand the forms in at the police station in person.

Generally speaking I don't know how effective this process is in finding potentially dangerous volunteers. I gather they only check police records as far back as the past five years, and only within this country.

At the interview, I talked about my teaching experience, my previous experience with children and as a volunteer, and found out what the applied-for work would entail. So far, so good. Then the interviewer asked if I understood what their no-violence policy meant.

I was puzzled by this question because "no violence" sounds fairly self-explicit to me; I couldn't think what I was expected to say, and I should probably have resisted the temptation to reply in a rather sarcastic tone, "I imagine it means I mustn't hit the children."

Oh dear, that was not the best possible answer. She gave me a sharp look and made a note on a form that she wasn't letting me see.

Next question: did I understand––and as a former teacher I should, she said, emphatically––what their policy of "confidentiality" entailed? Again, it seemed pretty obvious; I gave her some synonyms for confidentiality. You want to know whether or not I'm trustworthy, and that I won't pass on any private, family secrets revealed by the children concerned (especially not in my blog!), and so on. She was marginally happier with that answer, but still wasn't sure about me. She wanted me to appreciate that some of these families have had recent traumas and are only just recovering. Sometimes they come fresh from tore worn countries, she said. She used this malapropism three times in the course of our conversation. I thought it best not to correct her.

Third question, would I be happy to help with the less sensitive jobs such as greeting the parents or photocopying the information sheets?

No worries there.

Following her script, she then asked, do you have any questions?

Would you trust your child with this woman?
Supposing I'd be interacting with children during the volunteer days, would I be allowed to pick them up, sit them on my lap?

Oh no! was the immediate, shocked response. Of course not.

I pointed out that when I'd volunteered at a centre for children at risk in the 1980s, the professional social workers there had advised us volunteers to take the obstreperous children in our arms and hold them as tightly as we could. That was the policy in those days.

"But that's holding! You can't do that here until you've been on a training course. You can't sit them on your lap either. Why would you want to do that?"

"To keep them under control."

Again, the sharp look and the scribbled note. "What do you mean by control?"

"Well, to calm them down." The children felt safer if they were being held firmly and the method did usually seem to work. "How else should we have managed that sort of situation?" I genuinely wanted to know.

"We would get the parent to come over. Only the parents may hold their child. Or health workers who have been specially trained."

"Would I be allowed to stroke their heads?"

(That would be just about acceptable, it seems.)

"Or touch their hands?"

Long pause. She was not so sure about that. There is so much perversity out there that you can't be too careful. Volunteers, even though they've had their police records checked with such thoroughness, obviously can't be trusted to keep a respectable distance. She told me that baby sitting services were offered by the social services, but that these assigned baby sitters are not allowed to change the children's diapers (nappies) while alone with them. Presumably the poor little things have to wait screaming with misery until their mums get home while the babysitter tries in vain to comfort them with soft murmurs from the other side of the room.

By this stage of the interview I think I was in more of a state of shock than my interviewer, but I did sign the forms agreeing to the appropriate behaviour. After digesting what I have learned, I may think twice now before doing what I was intending to do, so those signatures may be redundant. I wonder how many potential well-meaning, useful volunteers they must lose by confronting them with such hoops and hurdles.

My husband, whom children generally love at first sight but who says he would never dream of undergoing such a demeaning volunteer selection process, reckons that officialdom cares more about itself than the people it is ostensibly trying to protect. "They are just covering their backsides," he says, "and if something goes wrong in spite of all these precautions, they can say, well look, we did follow the correct procedures."

Having brought up two children of my own to be loving and responsible adults and parents in their own right, having been a school teacher, having previously worked as a volunteer with refugee children who spoke no English, and with toddlers at risk, I too feel somewhat insulted by the implication that I still can't be trusted in the presence of a child. At least, not without a lengthy screening first. What upsets me above all is the presumption of guilt that this process implies. It is a sign of the times, like the obsessive security checks at our airports. I am an Englishwoman brought up to believe in what J. Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey refers to as "the golden thread that runs through British justice," that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Nowadays it seems to be the other way round, which has a Kafka-esque effect. After the cross questioning, I begin to wonder whether I may, in fact, have unconsciously done something criminal, of which I am not yet aware.

And yet, as Simmler says to himself at the end of Dr. Simmler's Planet (a great novel that I reread recently), we don't need to be told what's good and bad, what's right and what's wrong. "We know, we know!"

I am not a defender of pedophiles. As a matter of fact I believe that, although it isn't listed among the Seven Deadly Sins, cruelty, and especially cruelty towards the most vulnerable, is the deadliest of all sins. In hindsight, perhaps I should have said that at my interview.

It also seems to me that it is biologically natural for a children to snuggle up to any adult who is kindly disposed towards them. They can sense goodness and sincerity and kindheartedness––what else would explain the quotation from St. Matthew's gospel with which I started this blogpost?

Jesus, who never went on a course training him how to hold children in his arms, could be trusted, and furthermore, he didn't mince his words on the subject of offences against children:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.


George Hobbs said...

Good grief!! Anyway, you can come and look after Eddie as much as you'd like!! :) We have similar issues with PULSE@Parkes. It's amazing - the teachers, students, parents, work staff all think that it's crazy, but because someone says we have to do it ... we have to do all these forms as well. I'm trying to work out at the moment if I'm allowed to chat to a student in the USA via skype about some pulsar observations. The answer is probably no.

George Hobbs said...

"Then the interviewer asked if I understood what their no-violence policy meant."

Correct answer: “The no-violence policy is a key pillar of the structural form of the policy statement. We must not be siloed into complex reform. I, personally, have analysed the no-violence space and your policy follows best practice. My key work ethic is “no-violence” which is in direct agreement with the policy.

Mel said...

You'd find a similar situation here in the UK, Ali. It has become evident that there are more people out there than we thought who wish harm to, or seek unnatural gratification from, children. There is also a litigious element in society that is quick to seek reparation for even the slightest invasion of their child's personal space. The upshot is that 'safeguarding' (the term we use here) procedures have become very rigorous and are applied to all who have unsupervised access to children and young people in schools, nurseries etc. Whether or not the procedures appear to be officious, or uncomfortable for applicants, is secondary to their intended purpose: to help to prevent a cunning, predatory minority from entering into positions where they can abuse children.

Alison Hobbs said...

Thanks, George, thanks, Mel. I appreciate that this subject has grey areas, in many different shades of grey too, and I have read "Lolita." It seems that a large percentage of child molesters are family members or close acquaintances, unfortunately, and no amount of officialdom can unearth them all. Another point to make is that cunning predators may well be cunning enough to get through these "safeguarding procedures" without detection. Meanwhile, we normal people who simply want to do kind deeds, are under the impression that "the world has gone stark staring bonkers"––that's how my mum puts it, anyhow.

Chris Hobbs said...

@Mel, IMHO I think you are wrong on two counts:

1. I don't think that these rules are in place to protect children, rather they are there to protect the organisation.

There are much more effective rules that could be in place to protect the children: all new volunteers to be assigned a mentor who will be with and observe the new volunteer in all activities for the first 6 months; mentors' reports to be handled by the committee each month; no individual volunteer to be alone with fewer than 6 children; etc.

i.e., apply the Israeli rather than USA method of border control --- have trained and highly-paid officers to observe people rather than have minimum wage workers scanning bags.

2. I don't think that those rules will protect children. Now I may be wrong here --- perhaps you can point me to the evidence that indicates that attacks on children have reduced since these rules have been put in place in the UK.

However, I suspect that most paedophiles have been very careful to ensure that they have no police record.

The bottom line is that this sort of (what I believe to be ineffective) screening is deterring people like Ali (who may now not be becoming a volunteer), but not deterring the paedophiles, thereby increasing the proportion of paedophiles in the volunteer community.