Watch out, adults about

Our obsession with child abusers risks destroying the traditional trust between generations.

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eachers who want sex with their pupils. Lurking paedophiles and "stranger danger". Almost every week parents are confronted with yet another alarmist campaign warning them of new threats to their children. Now child abuse in the sporting world seems set to become the next high-profile child-protection issue. Last week we learned that the NSPCC has organised a meeting with the Sports Council and the National Coaching Foundation to consider launching a taskforce to deal with the matter. According to Professor Celia Brackenridge, the key publicist of this issue, sport is the "last refuge of child abuse", a place where children are uniquely vulnerable to predatory adults.

But what is the evidence for this claim? Very little, it seems. The idea that abuse is rife in sport appears to be based on little more than the assumption that when adults and children occupy the same space, abuse is the inevitable outcome. "I know it is going on from hundreds of interviews with athletes but it is difficult to get any statistical evidence," writes Brackenridge in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Child-protection crusaders are rarely put off by the absence of facts. It merely proves that the problem is "hidden" or "invisible" and requires yet another campaign to raise the public's awareness.

The debate about child abuse in sport - mainly inspired by American and Canadian researchers - is typically unspecific about its definition of abuse. Most of the discussion focuses on what is characterised as mental or emotional abuse. An NSPCC guide on this subject defines "emotional abuse" in terms which in the past would have been interpreted simply as putting kids under pressure. It states that such abuse includes situations "where parents or coaches subject children to constant criticism, bullying or unrealistic pressure to perform to high expectations". According to child-protection guidelines used in Britain, emotional abuse can encompass virtually every parental failing, from "failure to meet a child's need for affection" to being so "over-protective and possessive" that they prevent their children from experiencing "normal social contact or normal physical activity".

There is little doubt that sport, like every department of life, has its share of predators. But there is a tendency to inflate the risks faced by children so that the exceptional soon becomes seen as the norm. A single incident is routinely portrayed as "the tip of the iceberg" of a much larger problem.

Claims of abuse in sport are prompted by a concern over the large number of adult volunteers in sports coaching. The assumption that adults, particularly men, cannot be trusted to interact with children has led to an explosion of rule-making in all kinds of institutional settings. Earlier this year the England and Wales Cricket Board issued guidelines on child protection. Other voluntary organisations such as the Scout Association have published similar regulatory codes of behaviour. One of the unfortunate consequences of these initiatives is to undermine trust both between adults and between adults and children.

One-to-one encounters between adult volunteers and children are increasingly stigmatised as an invitation for misbehaviour. Guidelines published by the British Salvation Army, an institution that would once have been regarded as a repository of unambiguous moral rectitude, are categorical on this point. It advises its members to "arrange that, as far as possible, an adult is not left alone with a child or a young person where there is little or no opportunity for the activity to be observed by others". According to a Salvation Army volunteer, many members are unhappy with this rule since much of their youthwork is done with bands - and since band members play different instruments, a lot of training needs to take place one- to-one in separate rooms.

In the name of protecting children from adults, the regulation of one- to-one relations is becoming increasingly mandatory. A Home Office guideline to voluntary organisations recommends that activities "which involve a single child working with an adult" should "take place in a room which can be observed easily by others in nearby areas, even if this is achieved simply by leaving doors open". The advice is echoed by the Scout Association, whose guidelines warn scout leaders to avoid both one-to-one situations and activities such as contact sports.

Mistrust of adults working with children has had a destructive impact on the relationship between adults and children. It has led to a situation where many people are wary of volunteering. The Scouts face a shortage of adult volunteer leaders. The fear of being branded a paedophile has made many men reluctant to get involved. "If a man says he wants to work with young boys, people jump to one conclusion," reports Jo Tupper, a spokeswoman for the Scout Association.

A similar pattern is also evident in primary school education. Research carried out by Mary Thornton of Hertfordshire University suggests that many men are turning away from careers as primary school teachers for fear of being labelled perverts. Thornton claims that men on teacher-training programmes "felt they had no idea how to deal with physical contact". Some of the trainees asked such questions as "Should I cuddle a distressed child?" As physical contact between children and adults becomes increasingly pathologised, teachers face a continual dilemma of how they should negotiate relatively routine incidents in the classroom. In August 1998 the Local Government Association even went so far as to advise teachers not to put sun cream on pupils because it could lead to accusations of abuse.

The regulation of adult-child encounters fosters insecurity and confusion. Paradoxically, it also weakens people's ability to negotiate some of the real problems faced by parents. Experience has shown that human relations are best worked out informally. People learn from their families and friends how to react to ambiguous situations and to distinguish between a difficult relationship and a dangerous one. Rules and guidelines pre-empt this process. The resolution of problems is left to professionals who are endowed with authority to determine what is and what is not acceptable behaviour. Their formal procedures are intolerant of ambiguity and exploration.

Whether we like it or not, adult-child relations cannot be negotiated through such procedures, informed by an imagination which can only distinguish between black and white. Not every adult touch of a child is a prelude to abuse. Nor are close, affectionate relations between adults and children an incitement to inappropriate behaviour.

Of course such encounters sometimes go further than they should, but society needs more than one way of dealing with them. Take the case of 16-year-old Rachel Russell, whose teacher Michael Edson was last week cleared by the courts of abducting her. The case collapsed when Rachel told the court that she loved Edson and was still waiting for him. Her parents, who initiated the case, have now lost contact with their daughter and are said to be distraught. No one came out of this messy affair a winner.

Should this case have come to court? Definitely not. The Russells' entirely understandable concern for their child's welfare was turned into meaningless moral theatre. But sadly, our obsession with adult predators deprives us, too, of the power to deal with the more mundane problems faced by parents as they try to look after the best interests of their children.

Frank Furedi is a reader in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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