Should men work with children?: As a male nursery nurse is jailed for child sexual abuse, Angela Neustatter asks if it is time to address the most uncomfortable question of all

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WALK into Bernard Misrahi's classroom at the education centre where he works and there's a good chance he will be cuddling a small child, have a little girl perched on his knee, or an arm around a pre-school boy who has come for a bit of comfort. That's the way he is with the children and, as a nursery nurse in charge of under-fives, he says: 'I am very close and physical with the children. It's my way of making them feel secure and settled. I believe it is what they need. I believe a lot of physical contact makes them feel safe and I don't intend to change my ways.'

It is a bold statement, foolish some might say, in a week which has seen 21-year-old Jason Dabbs, a trainee nursery nurse, go to prison for seven years for sexually assaulting at least 12 children in the centres where he worked, and two male teachers accused of indecent assault at Erith School in Kent. But Misrahi believes boldness is what is needed. He says: 'It is particularly important at a time like this for men working with children to stand up and point out that those who abuse are very small in number, and that children will lose a great deal if we cannot be natural with them and treat them in the way which seems best. I don't believe my behaviour will be misconstrued.'

Not all male teachers feel so confident. Many across the country have talked about the increasing constraint they feel in having physical contact with children in their care. Dale Armstrong, in charge of a class of seven-year-olds at Castletown Primary School in Sunderland, feels he must watch his every move with the children. 'I am very careful not to be put in a situation where anything could be suspected, and I have the impression it's at the forefront of many male teachers' minds. When you are trying to create a relaxed situation, make children feel at ease, or offer a bit of comfort, the most natural thing in the world is to put an arm around them. But I don't do it now. The sense that any man could be an abuser has created a brick wall.' Mike Cunningham at Whitehaven Primary School in Cumbria feels similarly. 'I worry every time I touch a child. It's stifling. As a parent, the most natural thing in the world seems to comfort an unhappy kid with physical affection, but now I try to find ways of conveying my sympathy without touch. And most parents are more wary these days. I have heard them expressing anxieties.'

Some schools warn staff to avoid physical closeness with children, whenever possible. Tim Coulson, head of William Tyndale Primary School in north London, tells staff members not to be alone in a room with a child if they can avoid it, and if it does happen, to make sure the door is open. Sherry Anne Sweeting, an Assistant Director at the National Nursery Education Board says there is often hostility towards men on training courses, and some nurseries refuse to take them on placements. 'There have been instances of parents removing children from places where men are offered work experience,' she adds.

The most spectacular and shocking cases of children being abused in institutions have emerged in residential homes. Here the vulnerability and powerlessness of the children make them easy prey. But the case of Dabbs - 64 children claimed they had been assaulted by him - has highlighted the disturbing fact that children may be abused anywhere men work with them - in playgroups, nurseries, in independent and state day and boarding schools.

Miranda E knows this painfully well. Her eight-year-old son Joseph (not their real names) was sexually abused by the headmaster of the private school he attended. He followed Joseph and a friend into the bathroom and assaulted them. Miranda says: 'It was a letter from Joseph asking me to take him away from the school immediately which set the alarm going. This was the school he had most wanted to go to. I collected him, and then learned that matron had followed the headmaster into the bathroom and caught him with Joseph's friend pinned up against the wall. The boys had never dared to say anything. After all how could they say such things about the head? Joseph wouldn't be touched for a very long time afterwards, he had the most dreadful night terrors and very graphic dreams.

'But I can't see that taking men out of the lives of young boys, or girls, is a good thing. They need to learn about the good things men can offer. I do think children should be given a way of talking it out, though. The silence is what protects.'

But can we really afford to let men go on working with vulnerable children, whose protection must, surely, be our priority? A view shared by professionals in all areas of childcare is that abusers will do all they can to work with children. They may spend a long time building up trust - becoming the favourite playgroup leader, teacher, caretaker, making a point of running the football club, instructing in chess or just being great fun - in order to carry out abuse.

Michele Elliott, director of the child protection charity Kidscape, points to new research findings which show that over half the abusers surveyed had met the children they abused through work, and that they had gravitated to these jobs. Adam Jukes, who works with men who commit sexual offences against children, concurs. 'There is a significantly higher proportion of men found to be abusive who have chosen to work with children, than in the general population of men. Most are never suspected or caught.'

Michele Elliott believes that we cannot afford to take the risk. 'I do believe children need close contact with men, and it would be a loss to children. But I believe the sacrifice has to be made.

'If men do work with children they should always work with a woman as well. Of course that does not provide absolute protection, but it would certainly give a higher level of safety. There are serious questions for parents to ask about boys' boarding schools, where there will almost certainly be a preponderance of male staff,' she adds.

Yet even among those whose job is to protect the young, most still believe that outlawing men from working with them is too high a price to pay. Kevin Barrett, policy officer to the NSPCC, does not believe it would be in children's best interests. 'We have to look at what children in general would lose if men were effectively cut out of their daily lives in this way. They need good role models, many come from single parent families headed by women who welcome positive male contacts for them. We need better procedures in institutions for monitoring what goes on, better training, and above all we need to help children to be assertive and feel they can seek help and be listened to. By doing this we can make it much more difficult for abusers to function.'

Sheila Burton at the Child Abuse Studies Unit at North London University points out that banishing men from caring for children would also recreate the great gender divide, where women are seen as the people who care for children. 'It would also be very retrogressive for children to grow up with this idea. It is not good for women, either,' she says.

Anna Coote, a feminist writer and mother of a seven-year-old daughter, is also vehemently against the idea of removing men from the care of children. 'That would be a tragedy. We have to find a constructive solution, a way of overcoming the problem, not of banishing men. Men are already far too removed from the care of children, and perhaps if they were more involved they would be more protective of them.'

Some schools, like William Tyndale, are trying to address the problem. Tim Coulson, the head, explains that children are shown a Rolf Harris video in which an unknown but trusted person inappropriately touches a child, and the teachers talk about how that could be dealt with. Staff make a point of letting children know they are available to talk, regularly meet to discuss any worries they may have about the children, and, in a discreet way, keep an eye on colleagues. Student teachers are never allowed to work alone with children, and Mr Coulson would not want male staff leading the groups they have in a small room separate from the main building. But he says: 'I also want my staff to feel they can be physically close to children if it seems the right thing. I feel confident that if it happened in a way a child did not like, he or she could tell me.'

Surely one of the most vital steps is to find out as much as possible about a man before he is given a job with children? And here there is considerable concern. The departments of health and education both have lists of people who have been convicted of abuse while working with children, and employers (both in the state and private sector) have a legal obligation to check these lists before appointing staff. Further checks could be carried out by consulting police records, but these are not compulsory. The problem in both cases is that only proven abusers with previous convictions are listed: it is widely suspected that this only represents a fraction of the abuse that goes on.

So can a potential abuser be spotted at an interview? Ray Wyre, who works with male sex offenders at Gracewell Clinic in Birmingham, believes it is possible. 'Questions about how the applicant would deal with a child who had been abused and was sexually precocious may elicit a telling response. And simply listening to the way men talk about children can show up inappropriate ideas.' If already in a child-based job, men who want to spend all their time with the children, who do not appear interested in adult friendship or spending time with adults, or who talk about the children in their charge in an over-familiar way, should be regarded warily, says Michele Elliott at Kidscape.

Whatever measures are taken, some abusers will get through. That is the chilling reality. Each new case will be greeted with uproar and, as happened with Jason Dabbs, there will be demands for maximum punishment. Perhaps a better response would be to see how the status of children can be boosted in our society. If we do not stop teaching them that they must always obey adults and not challenge authority, and if we disbelieve them when they protest at how they are treated, abusers will continue to get away with abusing and silencing our children.

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(Photographs omitted)

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