26 January 2012

On abuse undetected for years

The story is here. A teacher at a primary school in Somerset was convicted today of 36 counts of the sexual abuse of children during his 15 years of employment at the school, many of them taking place during classes, and despite concern having been expressed by colleagues on thirty occasions. The head teacher has been dismissed.

How could that happen? All too easily. I wrote in a similar area here. In view of some of the comments I received on that post (now deleted, of course) I want to be clear that I am not making excuses for anyone and still less condoning child abuse.

Several times in my career I have come close to having to report abuse, of elderly people and people with learning disabilities and mental health issues as well as children. I'm relieved to say that I have never had to make the call because someone else more closely involved has beaten me to it. Once I decided not to make the call, and it appears that I made the right judgment, although...

I have also been on the fringes of many cases, talking to social workers and others about their experiences. And in a different capacity as a teacher trainer, I have sat in on many many "safeguarding" training sessions.

I do know the ropes, both in policy and principle, and in practice.

Cut to the chase... the reporting system is misconceived. It's a top-down idealised model. Whoever you are, if you have suspicions of abuse, report to your supervisor.

That is the worst possible scenario...
  1. Your supervisor is your boss. An abuse report is the last thing she wants to hear--so unless you have a group of supporters (who may well evaporate at the least sign of opposition), you are not going to approach. It is not a good career move.
  2. Because the boss may refer it up the line to her boss, but despite the formal procedures, boss1 is in the same position to boss2 as you are to boss1. Follow?
  3. Regardless of the number of stages before external action is taken, the default action at each stage is of course denial: "It's probably all a misunderstanding/mistake/personal issue/ will sort itself out..."
  4. And the longer that goes on, the worse will be the consequences if there is an inquiry, so cognitive dissonance sets in...
The problem is that supervisors/managers/headteachers are just not equipped to respond proportionately to concerns. My admittedly anecdotal experience over many years is that at their level the safeguarding training does not work. It is experience which counts. Faced with one case every few years, and a vague idea of what ought to happen (which rarely does) they have no idea of a graduated and nuanced response. There are two positions; Denial and Disaster.

The matter needs to be taken out of their hands.

However fallible our social workers are (and of course by the nature of their task they get no publicity for their unsung achievements, just their disasters) they've been there before. They are pretty good at sorting through malicious referrals, deluded suspicions, reasonable concerns, serious cases, and emergencies. Referrals do not faze them. They can do proportionate responses, discreet investigations, re-assurance of reluctant victims and families

Good grief! I've got a positive proposal!

So the safeguarding/reporting procedures need to be changed. Regardless of what you are taught: If you suspect abuse,  
  • first report it to the NSPCC (the organisation is far from perfect, but it is accessible and ubiquitous and not in hock to any local interests), and 
  • then to your boss. 
You don't need to admit to having made the referral--it's better if you do, of course. Having a named referrer "gives the inquiry legs" as they say.

Many years ago I taught on a continuing professional development course on pastoral care for teachers. During the coffee break, one of them took me aside and sought advice about one of her pupils, who (she believed) was being abused at home. I explained the formal procedure, but she stopped me,"I know all that, but, if I pass this on, she'll end up in care--and I've seen what happens to children in care--her chances in life will be blighted. And if I don't, she'll continue to be abused, and learn that there is no point telling anyone because nothing happens..."

It's always a difficult call.

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