The age of innocence is dead, killed by suspicion

Child abuse fears are about to cost many needy children a holiday. Are we being over-cautious?
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The Independent Online
This story marks another nail in the coffin of the age of innocence - for nothing could be more innocent than the Children's Country Holiday Fund. Founded in 1884 by Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Dame Henrietta, it has sent more than a million children from "the London slums" on country holidays.

But this venerable charity ( President, Princess Alexandra) is now in deep disarray, wracked by self-doubt and anxiety. Yesterday its director resigned and the trustees have closed down all the holidays for this year. The 3,000 poor children expecting to go will be sadly disappointed. The hundreds of volunteers who organise the holidays each year, mainly with country families, have wasted their time and work.

The charity has fallen victim to a panic about child abuse gripping many organisations. It is not, after all, a panic without substance. Following the horrible revelations reported extensively in this paper from Clwyd, and other dreadful cases in children's homes, the world has finally woken up to the deviousness of predatory paedophiles who infiltrate every place where children are to be found.

What has befallen the CCHF is a sad warning of what may happen to a number of other excellent voluntary organisations. Those country families that out of generosity have taken in children from London for years may feel themselves suddenly subject to unjust suspicion. Decent, selfless people may become increasingly fearful of involving themselves with children at all.

The trouble started last summer in a CCHF camp (though most holidays are with host families in the country). An Islington child at a CCHF camp complained of what Islington describes as "inappropriate touching" by a camp organiser. Although the incident was relatively minor, it led to police investigation of the accused man. A teacher in residential schools, he is now in custody on charges relating to his teaching work. Unfortunately, he was one of the 15 trustees of the charity. Two other trustees have resigned in the past two years following convictions for child abuse, unconnected with CCHF children. One got three years' probation, the other spent four months in prison. In another incident two years ago, a London volunteer used the CCHF to befriend a vulnerable family, earning their trust, then offering to babysit and take the children swimming. He served a three month sentence for molesting one of them.

Put together in this way, that sounds like quite a long litany of disaster for the CCHF. Three trustees and one volunteer turn out to have been accused of paedophilia. On the other hand, Bob McKeown, the director, says that in all these years there have only ever been these two relatively minor incidents with CCHF children. Many of the volunteers accuse him of panicking unduly, sacrificing children's holidays needlessly. This tension has partly led to his resignation. He is an ex-army man and he thinks the job should go to a child-care professional.

Islington Council, hyper-sensitive to child abuse after serious cases in their own children's homes, told the CCHF that because these two incidents both happened to their children, they would no longer send any others. They said they would write to every other London borough telling them of their concern, as social services always share any cause for alarm. The letters went out yesterday. The CCHF replied that to avoid scandal they would close down all their holidays this year and review their methods.

Many of the volunteers within CCHF are distraught at the loss of all this year's holidays. They feel their procedures are as water-tight as possible. Host families are vetted by local volunteers. If they are deemed suitable, they then have to provide legal proof of identity. (Paedophiles frequently change name and address to avoid detection). They need two references, one from their GP and one from another professional person. Then they need to be cleared with the local social services department, and after that they are cleared with police records through a special department of the Home Office. This is a pretty rigorous system. What more can the CCHF be expected to do? The Scout Association, for instance, has no access to police records but relies on its own cuttings and records of anyone ever reported to them or the press on child abuse charges. However, they say they only get some 10 complaints of any sort each year against their 110,000 leaders.

Following the Clywd revelations the Government is considering a national register of convicted paedophiles. But, many of the professionals say, it would be important to include allegations (whether substantiated or not) as well as convictions, to detect recurrrent patterns.

The CCHF will now bring in more thorough interviewing, though most people agree that the chances of detecting a paedophile on interview are virtually nil. Islington's deputy head of social services, Paul Fallon, says they have been looking into character tests (so-called "personality inventories") although they are not convinced that these have been proved to work. But he does think vigorous screening may deter paedophiles from applying, and they will move off to a softer target.

The National Children's Bureau is helping CCHF to improve its methods. One suggestion is that children and families should be told clearly how to make complaints, and blow the whistle on anything suspicious.

John Rea Price, a former Social Services director and now head of the National Children's Bureau, has had a life-time's experience of all this. He used to be sceptical of rumours of paedophile rings, but has learned of their sophistication through bitter experience. He cites the recent case of a one-time employee of the Children's Bureau who later became a leading child abuse consultant, Open University lecturer and author of key texts on residential care. A lifetime of paedophilia was uncovered only by a chance customs discovery of child pornography.

"There is no justice in these cases," Mr Rea Price says. "The media damn you if you do take rigorous action and they damn you if you don't. The CCHF are right to close down for a time, because it's Sod's law something will happen if they don't. But it will be an absolute tragedy if that spirit of volunteering, generosity and hospitality is lost, that spontaneous human kindness to children. After all, volunteers usually have a better record of safety with children than professionals."

Many of the volunteers think the CCHF has over-reacted. Temporary closure is a gesture with little real substance. Rigorous new checks may yield no better results, while making it virtually impossible for the country volunteers to operate. So the charity may collapse because nothing they can do will ever be 100 per cent risk free. But it would be a bitter loss to children who need a holiday from families that have neglected or abused them - and a sad loss of the volunteering spirit, of simple goodness and kindness.