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The dangers of Sarah's law

There may be many as 250,000 people in Britain with an active sexual interest in children when only

New Statesman readers who are also habitual viewers of Eastenders may constitute a fairly small demographic. But you may at least be aware of the current furore over the soap’s portrayal of a father’s sexual abuse of his 15-year old stepdaughter.

There may be some justification for the hundreds complaining about these distressing issues being presented in prime time: equally it is courageous for the Beeb to include a scenario which challenges the public’s perception of what is a ‘typical paedophile’.

The repellent Tony’s grooming and seduction of his stepdaughter, Whitney, is a much more familiar pattern of abuse than the more commonly held image of predators lurking in parks. NSPCC say over 75 per cent of offenders are closely known to the victim.

By unhappy coincidence, the Home Office launched last week, with an unashamed tilt at populism, their pilots for ‘Sarah’s Law’. Under the scheme, worried parents can be told details about anyone with direct access to their child, who has a conviction for a sexual offence.

Community disclosure, the brain-child of former Home Secretary John Reid, is aimed specifically at single mothers who are often entrapped into relationships by paedophiles targeting the children.

However, the abusive stepfather in ‘Eastenders’ has no convictions for sexual crimes. If Whitney’s mum, Bianca, asked for a check under Sarah’s Law, her Tony would get the all-clear. The NSPCC, who are advising the BBC scriptwriters, reject the government’s claim the new procedure is certain to enhance child protection. Head of Policy, Diane Sutton feared Sarah’s Law’s ability to “create a false sense of security”.

The vast majority of child abusers have no convictions at all. Criminologist Mark Williams-Thomas estimates there may be as many as 250,000 people in Britain with an active sexual interest in children when only 30,000 have been caught, convicted and signed the sex offender’s register. The trouble with Sarah’s Law, is it hardens the public’s view that the threat to children’s safety comes predominantly from convicted paedophiles. The new parental right for information on offenders is, in effect, an illusion of empowerment.

The Home Office consulted on Sarah’s Law with a host of children’s charities as well as police and probation services. Their almost universal opposition proved no brake to Ministers who preferred to listen to the views of victims’ groups than the recognised experts in offender management. One officer from the Met put it harshly when he said, “just because you’ve been in a car crash doesn’t make you an accident investigator”.

The minister responsible for child protection, Vernon Coaker, insists police will only divulge such information which is, “relevant, necessary and proportionate”. Parents are to be warned they face prosecution if they share the information with others. But there is no real prospect of this experiment remaining in ‘vitro’ when the stakes are as high as the protection of children. People talk. Parents are not so selfish to be solely concerned about their own child’s safety and not their friend’s and neighbour’s. Some would see a fine for a breach of a ‘paedo’s’ confidentiality a price worth paying or even a badge of honour.

The Home Office has also turned a blind eye to the thoroughly negative experience of the U.S. on widening disclosure. Under Megan’s Law, known as community notification, there is unfettered access to databases containing details on thousands of offenders including their addresses and photographs.

Reports of low level violence aimed at registered sex offender is fairly common but public disorder and outright vigilantism less so. One notorious case was William Elliott from Maine who had a conviction for 'sex abuse with a minor'. His offence was to sleep with his 15 year-old sweetheart, three months before her 16th birthday. Years later, loner Stephen Marshall looked William up on Maine's sex offender website, located his trailer home and shot him dead with a .45 Magnum.

Scott Taylor, is Chief of Community Corrections in Oregon and has worked with sex offenders for over 30 years. When asked what would be the ideal system for managing them he described, “a multi-agency approach where police, probation and prison officials would meet regularly to assess risk and determine appropriate monitoring levels of all offenders. If we had that we probably wouldn’t need community notification [Megan’s Law]." The picture he painted was an uncannily close portrayal of the UK’s Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

In many states, Megan’s Law has been compromised by locally elected officials imposing undeniably tough but ultimately pointless conditions on offenders. Compelling them to be identified on their driving licences, by banners on their front doors or even on their car number plates only adds to their further vilification. It is not surprising to hear the outcome, in many areas, is a third of registered offenders disappearing from the authorities. Even if they stay in touch, many refuse to provide a home address. Detective Bob Schilling of Seattle Police Department conceded, “50 per cent of the city’s highest risk offenders declare themselves homeless”.

The lessons from the US are clear; widespread community knowledge of offenders leads directly to their hounding and isolation. Ultimately the policy is self-defeating; an offender who has gone to ground is an unmanaged offender and a greater risk to children. Martin Narey, CEO of Barnado’s echoed this fear last week when he spoke of his “grave concerns” and added bluntly, "Sarah's Law will put children in greater danger". Other measures, such as last week’s proposal to compel released offenders to undergo polygraph testing as part of their probation, has a much stronger evidence base from the US in reducing harm to children.

Dan Norris, Labour MP for Wansdyke, is a strong supporter of the government’s disclosure pilots but he also stresses the need for substantial public education. “Information on offenders alone doesn’t protect children. I have seen in the US how it needs to be combined with a community education programme. If we don’t so the same we’ll be missing a trick. Educated parents are able to make properly informed dispassionate decisions."

But, in the context of child protection, it is always going to be hard to disentangle the rational from the raw emotion. Child abuse immediately makes parents raise a psychological drawbridge and are then oblivious to where dangers to their children really lie. John Reid himself struggled to hide his personal feelings. Although he claimed the cause was driven by a simple conviction, “such information [on sex offenders] should not be the sole preserve of officialdom,” last June’s Child Sex Offenders Review was announced with the grisly promise of instigating chemical castration.

Reid’s successor, Jacqui Smith, in place of justification just offers us ethereal banalities such as, “I want to see every child living their lives free from fear”. Well, who doesn’t? A home secretary should be providing the public with practical solutions rather than floating some utopian aspiration.

The producers of Eastenders, labouring under a welter of tabloid protest and viewers’ complaints, are attempting to make people get past the initial revulsion of the act of abuse and accept the grim fact that ‘paedophiles’ are very often members of the same family. A BBC spokeswoman said, "we appreciate that for some viewers this storyline will have particular resonance and significance. In running it, it's certainly not our intention to cause distress or upset, either to those who've suffered from sexual abuse or their families. Our aim is instead to raise awareness of this very sensitive issue.”

The producers’ dilemma is instructive to children’s charities and Ministers alike on how to confront the issue in a digestible manner which can stimulate an objective debate. If it does, it won’t be thanks to Sarah’s Law.