Page last updated at 08:52 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 09:52 UK

'I was treated like a paedophile'

By Julian Joyce
BBC News

Stuart Fisk
Stuart Fisk advises other men not to bother volunteering to work with children

A think tank has suggested that relationships between adults and children are being poisoned by an increase in child-protection measures.

Others argue that the rules protect children from abuse - the Home Office says that more than 20,000 unsuitable people were weeded out by Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks in the past year alone.

An illustration of the difficult balancing act that must be struck between these opposing views is provided by the experiences of one man, who volunteered to work as a mentor to young children in an Essex primary school.

Stuart Fisk, 36, from Colchester, claims he was treated "like a paedophile" by the staff of St Osyth Church of England Primary School, near Clacton-on-Sea.

Regret

Now he says he regrets his well-meaning attempts to help vulnerable children.

How long will it be before parents who host sleepovers for their children also need to be checked out by the police?
Professor Frank Furedi

The school denies it made Stuart feel unwelcome. It says its child protection rules are designed to protect both children and the adults who work with them.

Said Stuart: "Someone visited my office to talk about mentoring children in a nearby school and I decided to give it a go.

"I wanted to give something back, to help children - and I also thought it might look good on my CV. So I volunteered."

Stuart had a CRB check for any criminal history. Nothing was found.

He said: "My job was to talk to kids who might be at risk or have troubles at home.

"I was supposed to gain their trust and act as a role model. If I thought the child might be in trouble I could offer advice."

Suspicious attitude

But, said Stuart, he encountered what he says was a "suspicious" attitude from staff at the school.

"When I started I was told that whenever I was with children, I had to sit in full view of another member of staff at all times.

"I also wasn't allowed to go and pick up any children from the classroom for the mentoring sessions. I was told I had to wait in the school library for them to be brought to me."

After seven weeks, Stuart left St Osyth. He said: "I had been fully checked out but the school still made me feel like I was a potential paedophile.

"My advice to anyone - especially a man - thinking of helping out in a primary school is 'don't bother'," he said.

Standard protocols

The school denies that Stuart was not allowed to escort children to and from the library. But head teacher Tim Palmer said Stuart was asked to abide by "standard child protection protocols".

"What we ask is that anyone talking to children do so in a public space - not squirreled away in some corner somewhere.

THE SPREAD OF VETTING
Computer on desk
More than 1 in 4 adults in England - 11.3m people - will be on a child protection database by 2009
Volunteer drivers and parents hosting school exchange visits are soon likely to be subject to CRB checks
Parents may get powers to check whether nannies or new partners have paedophile convictions
Ministers plan to require CRB checks on parents who let a child stay on a foreign exchange visit

"This is for the protection both of the volunteer mentor, and the children."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Stuart's experiences, his attitude is not unique.

Last year a survey by the NCH children's charity estimated that 13% of men who do not volunteer to work with young people said it was due to the fear of being perceived as a paedophile.

Expanding measures

Professor Frank Furedi, who co-authored Wednesday's report Licensed to Hug, published by the think tank Civitas, warns that these fears are being stoked by what he terms a "stealthily expanding" growth in child protection measures.

His report argues that the "routine police vetting of adults" fuels mutual suspicions and transmits negative signals to children.

It also undermines the ability of adults to take responsibility for children, and diminishes adult authority.

Most controversially, says Professor Furedi, an over-reliance on CRB and other official child protection measures actually puts the safety of children at risk.

Tragic toddler

The cumulative outcome of the trends is to discourage adults from taking responsibility for the welfare of young people, he writes.

The report offers up the tragic example of Abigail Rae, a three-year-old from Warwickshire who drowned in a pond after she escaped from her nursery.

An inquest into her death in 2006 heard that Clive Peachy, a bricklayer, had passed the toddler by as she wandered the road alone. He failed to stop and help her - fearing people might think that he was trying to abduct the little girl.

In his summing-up the coroner described the incident as a "sad reflection" on society - but said people "may well understand the circumstances”.

Defenders of the current system say it is not responsible for this type of incident, and have called for the return of "common sense".

Childline campaigner Esther Ranzten told the BBC: "Nobody wants the over-correct political reaction which prevents grandparents from videoing their children in a pantomime - that sort of thing.

"That's just irrational... it's not to do with the vetting procedure."


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Vetting school staff
18 Dec 03 |  Education
Millions must be on vetting list
02 Jun 08 |  Education

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