This is an experimental blog. I’m not sure how I feel about it because it can’t possibly cover every eventuality, and I don’t want it to seem like a reason NOT to report a serious allegation to the police or to child protection agencies. The answer to the question “What should I do if I am worried about a child?” should be to report to the relevant organisation/agency to make sure the child is safe.
This blog contains suggestions about what people may consider doing when the alternative action they are thinking about is disbelieving children and doing nothing. If there is concern that these suggestions muddy the waters, I’ll take them down.
I’ve blogged elsewhere about how we can help children to understand their bodily autonomy and learn to negotiate consent safely:
I’ve also lightly touched on the cultures of complicity we can create (usually unintentionally) within organisations, where even people who are responsible for keeping children safe find themselves unable or unwilling to challenge suspected abuse.
One of the ways we create conditions in which abuse can flourish is by choosing not to confront small issues that make us feel uncomfortable, but which fall short of actual provable abuse. However, when we do this, we make it harder to challenge actual abuse when it occurs. This is because we have blurred the lines about what is and is not acceptable, we have become complicit (perhaps) in some behaviours which we are not proud of ourselves, and we have created a situation in which the only challenge we are likely to make is one of actual criminal wrong-doing, which we know can be career-ending, and which we are therefore very reluctant to level at anyone without cast-iron evidence. It’s in the nature of abuse that cast-iron evidence is quite hard to come by.
Wise Tweetmate @A_BoxOfRain noted:
If our culture had better models of constructive criticism, lets say, for smaller stuff, the very idea of being challenged to improve might not feel so charged. (And the expectation that people can and want to improve how they act in the world would be a good starting point).
I agree with this point of view. However, this can be hard to do because we don’t always know how to challenge without being confrontational. In workplaces (as @A_BoxOfRain also notes)
Any challenge around really inappropriate behaviour can very quickly escalate to diciplinary procedures.
In other words, this is a ‘high stakes’ situation which we are ill-equipped to deal with.
It occurred to me that it might be worth blogging some suggestions about how we could have have direct and purposeful conversations which establish respect for children’s boundaries and which don’t automatically lead to accusation and confrontation. The underlying purpose of these conversations is not to prove abuse; it is to keep children safe and to confirm to both children and the adults around them that children’s boundaries matter. This helps to create safe cultures that make abuse less likely. It is perhaps the equivalent of those signs that light up to tell you to slow down when you’re driving. The intention is not to catch and criminalise, but to change behaviour.
For readers who are already practiced at these kind of conversations, what follows may seem condescending or patronising. I am sorry. It’s not intended to be. The suggestions reflect my own learning about how to improve my courage and ability to have difficult conversations; about the power of ‘affective statements’; and about how having a clear idea of what to say in a range of circumstances can make it easier to overcome the hurdle of saying anything at all. I am still learning and practising these skills.
I am using as Case Studies two stories I have heard in the past week as part of the discussion of the Jimmy Savile allegations. I’m not trying to prove, or disprove, whether these stories are true; nor am levelling criticism at any of the parents/carers involved in these situations. As the “Cultures of Complicity” blog shows, I recognise it can be difficult to take action.
Unwelcome touching at the table on a family day out.
A boy is on a family day out. A celebrity comes over and sits with the family. The celebrity rubs the boy’s leg under the table and then moves up to his crotch. When the boy later tells his family, they don’t take it seriously. They say the boy is exaggerating or imagining and that the celebrity is ‘a good man’.
What to do?
If you are already teaching your child about consent (see previous blog); demonstrating to them that you don’t expect them to tolerate unwelcome touch and that you are committed to letting them define their own touch boundaries, they may possibly make their own remarks affirming their personal space. If they do so, support them, clearly and politely. “I respect my son’s boundaries when he says he’s uncomfortable. Please move / please let me sit between you.”
It’s more likely though that if a child ‘tells’ at all while the incident is happening, they will quietly let you know. Then you have a responsibility to make your child safe and to let the other person know that they have transgressed a boundary. I would suggest moving between your child and the person that is making them feel uncomfortable, and if questioned about why, say clearly “My son / my daughter felt uncomfortable sitting next to you, and I have moved to sit between you so that he / she can relax. It’s important to me that my son / my daughter enjoys our day out” A statement like this makes no direct accusation but tells your child that you will help them to police their boundaries and tells the transgressor that a boundary has been crossed. If the touching was accidental, the person may well be mortified, but that’s a small price to pay for establishing a safe boundary clearly, and if the touching was deliberate, you have sent a clear “zero tolerance” signal.
If challenged as part of this conversation – “are you accusing me of molesting your child!?”, re-state the boundary: “I am making sure my child is comfortable and can enjoy our day”. If the touching is denied. “How dare you!? I didn’t touch your child!”, confirm that your move is a protection for the adult against a false accusation too. “I know that if I sit between you there’s no opportunity for such an accusation to be made.”
Finally, if your child doesn’t tell until after the incident. a) Listen – hear your child out. Don’t try to minimise or deny their experience. b) Tell your child clearly “I believe you.” c) Confirm to them that you will keep them safe in future “I will never make you sit next to that man again”. d) Let them know that if anything similar happens in future, it’s fine for them to tell you while it is happening, so that you can act there and then, and that you know how to act confidently. e) Tell other people what you are doing and why. “I won’t be inviting X to any future family gatherings because he / she made my child feel very uncomfortable by the way they behaved. f) Tell the transgressor what you are doing and why. “I will always sit between you and my son / daughter at these events so my child feels safe and comfortable.” g) Consider whether you ought to report what has happened to a child protection agency (LA / NSPCC / police)
You may not have clear evidence that abuse has occurred, so you may be in no position to make an allegation of abuse. Alternatively you or your child may not want to take the route of a formal allegation because you fear that further harm will come by taking it further. What is most important is that you make your child safe. (Although – to be absolutely clear – if you take the view that you do have such evidence or want to make an allegation with or without evidence, the suggestions above should not stop you, they are designed to help you make sure your child is safe while you work out what else, if anything, you ought to do).
The Hairdresser who molests
A girl is taken to the hairdresser by her mum, who leaves her alone there while she has her haircut. During the haircut the hairdresser molests the girl. When afterwards the girl tells her mother, her mother hits her (presumably for telling a terrible lie) and refuses to deal with the issue at all.
What to do?
I hope that this one is really clear. First, and most obviously, punishing children for a disclosure will definitely contribute to a culture of abuse. So, don’t punish a child for saying they were molested. Follow points a – g as outlined before, re-designed slightly for the new scenario.
Being realistic, it’s not possible, or sensible to advise: “Don’t ever leave your child alone at the hairdresser.” Despite recent publicity our starting point should be that most adults most of the time can be trusted. But if your priority is keeping your child safe, and making sure they feel safe, you will certainly need to make sure you don’t use that hairdresser again; check with your child about how safe they feel and make sure you don’t leave your child alone with an adult that they don’t feel comfortable with (even if you have many other pressing shopping tasks to do) and make sure that you tell the hairdresser why you are not coming back.
“I won’t be using you for my children’s haircuts any more because X touched my daughter in a way she didn’t like while she was with you. I won’t be using you for my own haircuts any more because I want my daughter to know that I respect her boundaries and will always support her in making those boundaries clear to other people.”
Once again, even if you don’t feel you have the evidence, or inclination to take the incident forward to a formal allegation, you have carried out two priority tasks – making your own child safe and making sure that the transgressor or the transgressor’s employer has the information they need to make their behaviour safer too.
When people are told that they have behaved in a way that hurts, upsets or makes someone else uncomfortable, they have an opportunity to change their behaviour to make sure that doesn’t happen again. If they are a decent person, who has crossed a line unintentionally or accidentally, they will want to put this right.
This is the benefit of “respectful uncertainty”. Perhaps we don’t know, or can’t prove that abuse has taken place, but do know that something has happened to damage a child’s trust in an adult.. And we can take steps to put that right.
Don’t forget though, that keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility. Here is some clear guidance from NSPCC about what to do if you are concerned about the safety of a child:
And here is some advice for parents / carers which examines potentially risky situations (from the Child Protection in Sport Unit, but which are applicable to other situations in which adults come into unsupervised contact with children):
I hope these suggestions are helpful. I am interested in other people’s experiences of successfully (or unsuccessfully) dealing with these kinds of situations.