Our anxiety over the corruption of innocence

Children of 12 are old enough to make choices and to understand the consequences
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The Independent Online

We can all breathe again. The news we had been waiting for came on Tuesday afternoon, an event so momentous that the BBC flashed it across the screen during Cash in the Attic, replacing the subsequent programme with a press conference with a Manchester policeman. Little Shevaun Pennington was home, safe. In Germany, the man described by one tabloid as a "pervert US Marine" was under arrest.

Naturally, and quite rightly, joy has been unconfined in the Pennington household and in her neighbourhood. Her headteacher said that everyone at Shevaun's school would be "really excited for her". The family was too tired to celebrate, her father told reporters. They were hoping that family life would soon be back to normal. Shevaun had "always been mature and sensible, but to go round Europe - you've got to draw the line somewhere".

It has been an odd and disturbing case, not just in the facts but in the way the story has been treated. Media interest, for a start, has been extraordinary. Every week, young girls and boys disappear from their homes and are often lucky to have their cases reported in a paragraph in the local paper.

But this, the story that had it all, booted the crisis in Iraq, the increasingly wobbly state of the Government, off the front pages. It had the internet grooming of a child, a brutal-looking American ex-soldier with, apparently, something of a dodgy past, problems with the French police and, at the centre, a naive 12-year-old girl described in one newspaper as "bright, with plenty of friends" but "very much a child, regularly wanting hugs from her mother".

On the one hand, innocent female childhood; on the other, depraved male adulthood. No wonder that our ever alert Home Secretary decided that it would be a good move to become involved and was reported to have urged the French authorities to take the matter seriously.

There has been something unnervingly prurient about much of the reporting, a degree of eager interest that one cannot imagine had the abducted child been male. Inevitably, since Shevaun Pennington has been returned to her family, the media emphasis has been upon the real dangers lurking within internet chatrooms and upon conflicting stories concerning the past and the personality of the man whe went away with, Toby Studabaker.

Between the lines of the coverage, a simplistic, black-and-white view of childhood has begun to emerge. Such is our anxiety about the corruption of innocence that a girl of 12, who was foolish and gullible enough to run away with an adult with whom she had developed an internet relationship, is presented unthinkingly as if she is every bit as much a victim as, say, a five-year-old snatched from a playground by a predatory paedophile.

Would it not be more grown-up and helpful to admit what any parent of a 12-year-old will know - that, however unworldly they may be, children of that age are old enough to make choices and to understand the consequences of their actions?

Shevaun Pennington's choice was to spend up to 11 hours a day on the internet - bravely reduced to five by her parents - and, while at school, to take calls from the man she called her "American friend". One might well ask what on earth the adults in her life were doing in allowing this situation to develop, but it is fair to point out that the girl herself had responsibilities.

By that age, every child will know that to disappear with a stranger and fly off to a foreign country, neither leaving a note nor calling home for several days, is about as cruel and thoughtless an act as any child can commit towards parents. If she is mature and sensible, as has been claimed, Shevaun would also know that to tie up the police forces of four countries, and to waste the precious time of Mr Blunkett, is a touch irresponsible.

Of course, she may have been manipulated by an adult who knew the dangerous, fake intimacy that the internet can provide, but it is dangerously naive for the rest of us to treat all of childhood, whether its inhabitants are four or 14, as the same land of sunshine and innocence.

There is something odd about a culture that can openly fantasise about teenage girls of the Britney Spears type and yet insists that, until they are 16 years old, children are too immature to make their own choices. Certainly Shevaun Pennington is young, but her sister was only a few years older when she left home to live with a boyfriend.

Would it be outrageously insensitive to suggest that, while Toby Studabaker quite rightly faces the full force of the law, Shevaun might also be reminded, between hugs, that she is now grown up enough to be thoroughly ashamed of the pain she has caused? As her father pointed out - a touch belatedly perhaps - you've got to draw the line somewhere.