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A policy of panic, not purpose

New moves allowing parents to know if paedophiles are looking after their children will do little to protect them 

Rowenna Davis, The  Guardian , UK, September 16 2008 

A new pilot scheme is giving parents the right to ask if individuals in contact with their children have a history of sex offending. This highly political move may provide a popular illusion of security, but the sad reality is that it is likely to make our children less safe. 

The public assumption is that safeguarding children and protecting sex offenders are mutually exclusive goals. Reduce the rights of the sex offender, and child safety moves up a notch. The real equation is not so simple.

Organisations that work with sex offenders have proven that community engagement is the best way to reduce re-offending. But if the police start disclosing private information about sex offenders' pasts, this will no longer be possible. Individuals will be penalised, victimised and driven underground. They will have fewer normal relationships with those who could hold them accountable for their actions and they will be less able to conceive of themselves as anything but offenders. 

In short, protecting children may involve protecting sex offenders' from the social exclusion that comes with disclosure. 

Sex offenders are already required to notify the police if they get a job, volunteer in the community or start a relationship. They are obliged to attend regular meetings with an assigned probation officer who monitors their movements, and the consequences for offenders who fail to notify the authorities with relevant information are strong. 

Moreover, if parents have independent worries about someone in their area, they can register their anxieties with the police, who have a responsibility to follow up their concerns. There is no need for public vigilantes. 

Disclosure would not be considered a viable policy strategy for any other crime. Murderers and torturers may cause just as much pain to their victims, but we do not clamor for our "right to know" about their life after incarceration. Paedophilia is one of the crimes, including murder, or rape, where we judge the perpetrator as well as the act; where we brand and punish the offender for life beyond the prison walls. 

This attitude says more about our inability to cope with the widespread prevalence of child abuse in our society than it does about the specific nature of the crime. 

According to an NSPCC study in 2000, one-in-six children in the UK experience sexual abuse before the age of 16, and 90% of sexual offenders are known to the victim.

Instead of dealing with these phenomenal rates of abuse responsibly and openly through social work and education, we suppress the problem and demonise the few who get caught. Labeling convicted sex offenders as monsters is convenient, because it "other"-ises the problem, and leaves those crimes taking place in the dark corners of our homes untouched.

If we really want to protect our children, we need to start engaging with this issue rather than stigmatising it. Disclosure might provide the public with more information about individual offenders, but without greater public understanding of the issue as a whole, sex offending will be allowed to continue in the dark.

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