A new project will allow parents to enquire if people working with their children have a history of sex crime
It is every parent’s worst nightmare.
You child has started a new group activity and seems to enjoy it. But every time you go to pick the wee one up after, you can’t but feel there is something just not quite right with one of the adults working with the group.
You can’t quite place it, but your gut instinct tells you that this person may very well pose a danger to your child. But what do you do?
Your child likes the group and doesn’t want to leave. Nothing has actually happened yet, so you can’t make any accusations. And even having a quiet word with other parents might prove troublesome if the worker in question is indeed innocent.
It’s an awful dilemma but an answer is emerging in Tayside. There, police and partner agencies like the local Criminal Justice Authority, are working on a pilot that will allow parents, carers or guardians to “register a child-protection interest in a named individual who has unsupervised access to their child or children”.
The pilot works on the presumption that police will notify parents if the person is on the sex offenders’ register and there are concerns that children could be in danger of harm, child protection measures will be taken.
Launching the pilot, which will run from September of this year until May 2010 before undergoing a full evaluation, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “While we must all, rightly, be alert to ‘stranger danger’, most sexual offences against children are committed by individuals known to the child’s family – adults who abuse a position of trust with that child.
“This project provides another link which will assist in identifying vulnerable children and families who are unknown to police and care agencies to ensure that correct help and advice are provided.” But how will this project operate in practice, and isn’t there a clear danger that it could be used by vigilantes, or even those with scores to settle?
Doreen Peat, chief officer of the Tayside Criminal Justice Authority, one of the key players in the project, says that all stakeholders are acutely aware of the danger of vigilantes misusing the programme to try and find out information about sex offenders in their area.
“I think the scheme will have clear criteria so when people phone up, the criteria will be made quite clear to them about what can and cannot be disclosed. I think also it’s probably important to acknowledge that this is a pilot, the first in Scotland, so all of these issues will be tested. For instance, we will be able to test whether information released by the police does result in what we would regard as unfortunate action, which is something to be avoided.
“It is unhelpful, and whilst it may be an understandable emotional reaction to a situation, it doesn’t help agencies manage sex offenders in the long term because it increases the chance that they will go underground and thus be more difficult to manage. So this project should allow us to test some of these issues,” she says.
It is important also to note that those registering interest in the scheme will be required to verify that the information they provide to police and other agencies is correct and that there will be what the Government describes as “legal consequences”.
But there are those who are concerned that relying on a system like this could increase complacency and ignore the facts.
“There’s a real danger of imagining that the greatest threat to children comes from ‘known suspects’. The reality is that most offenders are not known to the police, so we must guard against relying on an easy system which leads to a false sense of security,” says Green MSP Patrick Harvie.
But Peat says that one unintended consequence of the programme may be that it alerts police and agencies to people who may pose a threat to children but that have yet to be detected. Put simply, if people are nervous enough to contact the programme, then there may well be something there. It’s the old ‘no smoke without fire’ principle.
Peat says: “It should allow the police to engage with people who have a worry, who are worried enough to phone a helpline, it should allow us to engage in a discussion with them about what measures are available and reassure them, to an extent. It will also allow the police to gather information on individuals who may present a risk who have been below the radar, for whatever reason. It should allow the police to gather information about people who may need to be further investigated.
“I think one positive outcome will be that people who are contacting the scheme will appreciate how pro-active agencies are being in the management of these offenders and it will allow the police to engage with these people to give them some level of assurance even if the particular circumstances mean that information can’t be disclosed for operational reasons.”