Who's minding the kids?

DUNBLANE There is little to stop paedophiles working with children, reports Jojo Moyes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THOMAS Hamilton was not the first man suspected of having a sexual interest in boys to find work with children, and the police and children's groups say that unless changes are made to the law and the way it is applied he will not be the last.

Boys' clubs and other recreational groups for children can be a magnet for paedophiles - like bars for alcoholics, as one expert put it - yet official policy on regulating them and vetting their employees is muddled at best and inadequate at worst.

Michele Elliott, the director of the child safety charity Kidscape, says it is "incredibly easy" to set up a boys' group in the way that Hamilton did. And she has a substantial file of cases of known sex abusers who have got themselves into situations where they were looking after or teaching young children and who then reoffended.

In 1987, for example, Cornwall County Council held a full disciplinary hearing into the case of Michael Johnson, after it was alleged that he had abused a boy on a boat trip. Although he was cleared of the charge, he was given a written warning about his conduct.

Yet Johnson went on to work at the Cornwall-based Azimuth Trust, taking young boys on sailing holidays, and in 1994 he was jailed for four years for indecent assault against two boys aged 9 and 11, whom he had abused on board ship, at his home, and at an authority outdoor education centre he helped run.

In another case, Pete Hamilton-Harvey was jailed for 12 months in 1993 for indecently assaulting two nine-year-old boys camping in his garden. Yet he was subsequently able to join a charity for which he held counselling sessions for troubled children, including child prostitutes, at his home.

A recent research paper confirms that this is a pattern. Ninety-one convicted child sex offenders were asked about the methods they employed to get contact with children. Just over half said they "offered to play games with the children, or teach them a sport, or how to play a musical instrument".

Yet it is not at present an offence for a convicted child abuser to work with children and there are no checks on those who run private youth clubs. Indeed, unless a youth club is run by a local authority it is not subject to any form of regulation.

Little wonder that well before the Dunblane killings police and children's organisations were expressing alarm. They called for tougher controls on the running of out-of-school youth and activity groups, warning that children who attend are at high risk of abuse because of the "patience and cunning" of paedophiles.

The Government, meanwhile, appeared to be moving in two opposite directions at once.

A task force set up by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, has been examining ways to cut down regulations protecting children from potential abusers in activity groups - at the same time as Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, appeared to support recommendations that checks on those who work with children should be tightened.

Child-care organisations and police say they were appalled at the proposals to reduce checks on those who work with children.The consultation paper, issued by the Department of Health as part of Mr Heseltine's deregulation drive, proposed to remove the Children Act registration and inspection requirement from people providing "supervised activities" used by children aged under 8 years. It also proposed to relax registration requirements for holiday play schemes, describing both measures as "an unwelcome regulatory burden".

On Thursday, following the events at Dunblane, the Government announced that it was "suspending" the consultation paper.

Peter Newell, research co-ordinator for the Commission on Children and Violence, expressed his outrage that the proposals had ever been brought forward. "The Government has been told repeatedly by various working parties and reports of the need for consistent safeguards and yet recently they've been moving backwards in reducing safeguards under the banner of deregulation," he said. "It should not take these sorts of tragedies to set up consistent systems. The paramount consideration should be children's welfare."

The other, and apparently contradictory, strand of official action under way before Dunblane originated with the Police Chief Superintendents' Association, which at its annual conference last October unanimously demanded tighter controls on paedophiles.

Like many children's groups they want a new law banning paedophiles from working with children, but they want to go further. They want residency orders introduced for convicted paedophiles, which would require them to inform the local police force of where they were living.

Ch Supt Brian Mackenzie, president of the association, justified the proposal: "They move around an awful lot. We keep intelligence records, but clearly they're no good if they have already moved. We've had incidences of dangerous paedophiles living next to schools and one who was working as a music teacher."

The proposals were being taken up within the police, and the Home Secretary was said to have expressed "sympathy".

Ch Supt Mackenzie was critical last week of the Depart- ment of Health's simultaneous attempts to deregulate child-care provisions. "The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," he said. "If those proposals were to go ahead it would be of huge concern to me. We need to think about tightening up regulations, not relaxing them."

Measures such as the monitoring of all known paedophiles may seem draconian, and they would be certain to raise civil liberties and human rights issues. But they are not out of tune with what convicted abusers themselves believe necessary.

In the study of convicted abusers referred to above, offenders made their own recommendations for minimising the risk of abuse. They said parents should be suspicious if someone seems more interested in their children than in the parents. "Watch out for someone who offers to take your child on holiday or tells you to take a break while they watch the kids - why would this man want to hang around your children?" the offenders said.

Dr Elliott of Kidscape, one of the report's authors, said: "This is a group of people who are terribly compulsive and terribly cunning and many of them will never go on to murder children, but they'll certainly go on to abuse and they'll never be cured.

"They're not curable, just containable. We'd like a total life ban as we do for people who drive, or keep animals, to prevent those people from ever working with children again."

Sometimes even the prospect of extensive vetting can help deter potential abusers. Valerie Howarth, chief executive of Childline, said that all the charity's potential employees are warned that they will be investigated. "That will obviously put off a likely paedophile," she said. "You have to be sure that your recruitment processes are good enough and the training you undertake will sift out people who are not appropriate."

But she added that the charity was concerned that even this would not identify those people who had not yet been caught and have no known record of paedophilia. "We know from our work that it's just these kind of people who will get into places where children are. They're very patient and clever," she said.

"We say that parents have to be extraordinarily vigilant. People say we're going over the top but when it happens to you, you want to make sure you're 100 per cent sure."