Huggers' charter is needed

July 11, 1997

IF THINGS go on like this children are going to be deprived of cuddles; the teaching of young children will be a man-free zone; social workers will become an endangered species and yet more people could decide parenting is not worth the candle.

Jim Christopherson's research in Nottingham (page 20) into attitudes among social-work students in different countries suggests that some students are becoming so anxious about being blamed for negligence when things go wrong that they are leaning towards an absurd level of disapproval and intervention in family life. America, as so often, seems to be further down the track, with parents who hug their ten-year-olds at risk of being reported.

At this rate we shall be back to the "Big boys don't cry" and other nonsense which the 1960s generation have fought so hard against. Do you now hesitate to send family snaps to the chemist since a television presenter was shopped for taking nude pictures? Should a young man stop to help a child crying in the street and walk it home? Who will trust a male neighbour to babysit?

Fear of abuse is not the only fear which is restricting the lives of children. John Adams of University College London has shown that the road accident death rate for children is now less than half what it was in the 1920s: the cause, parents' fear of dangerous roads means today's children are not allowed out alone, do not walk to school or play on the block. To the fear of danger is added the fear of being branded a negligent parent.

The uncovering of abuse in recent years has revealed it to be much more extensive than most people knew, or cared to know. This week's horror stories from a list of children's homes underline the hidden extent of the problem. Nor, it is apparent, is it only institutions which are dangerous. A society which has got used to being liberal about single parenthood, high divorce rates and the consequent formation of more heterogenous families, is having to accept that step-parents, foster parents and other unrelated adults in a household are many times more dangerous to children than blood parents.

The High Court heard this week of the fostered teenager who sexually assaulted the children of his foster parents. The foster parents were not told of his previous conviction for assaulting a seven-year-old.

Fortunately there is help at hand. Recent research within the new Darwinian paradigm in the social sciences, particularly that of Daley and Wilson in Canada, suggests a basis on which to begin to work out new guidelines for those responsible for training professionals - teachers, social workers, nursery assistants - in our world of moral relativism. This work suggests that step-parents and other unrelated adults in a household must be more carefully watched than natural parents.

It is becoming clear that blacklists of known abusers must be more accessible to those hiring staff and placing children. References and credentials need more systematic checks so liars and cheats are spotted. The proposal that offenders serve indeterminate sentences may help.

But there is also need to consider robust defences for teachers and others who fear accusations if, for example, they give a young child a comforting hug. And we do need to make clear that rules governing the care of children by non-relatives are not necessarily appropriate for monitoring how parents treat their own children. Without such distinctions childhood will be impoverished.

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