By Bruce Schneier
Since the UK's Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was established in 2002, an ever-increasing number of people are required to undergo a "CRB check" before they can interact with children. It's not only teachers and daycare providers, but football coaches, scoutmasters and Guiders, church volunteers, bus drivers, and school janitors -- 3.4 million checks in 2007, 15 million since 2002. In 2009, it will include anyone who works or volunteers in a position where he or she comes into contact with children: 11.3 million people, or a quarter of the adult population.
This might make sense if it worked, but it doesn't. CRB checks don't keep child predators away from children. And even worse, this bureaucratic process fosters an atmosphere of mistrust among parents, teaches parents to ignore their own intuitions about other adults, and limits children's activities as organizations find CRB checks too cumbersome.
Effectiveness first. CRB checking does not guarantee that only non-predatory adults interact with children. At best, it only protects children from recidivist predators. This is a real risk but less than first-time predators, predatory relatives, or predators they come into casual contact with.
The CRB cites statistics like "Since 2004 the CRB has stopped 80,000 unsuitable people working with vulnerable groups," but that's just false. In the first place, there are only 30,000 people on the list. Also, denying someone a CRB approval isn't the correct metric -- protecting children is. Before CRB checks, there weren't 20,000 repeat-offender child-predatory crimes annually. The effectiveness of this program is the difference between the small handful in 2001 and the smaller handful today.
The Home Office admits that 9,000 potential predators who should be on the list are not, and their error rate means that 2,000 innocent people will be falsely labeled as child predators in 2009. But it's more than the errors the list is filled with people who shouldn't be on it. For example, underage teenagers could be put on the list for having consensual sex -- nothing that should prevent them from taking a summer job around kids.
CRB checking might not be effective at stopping child predators, but it's effective at instilling fear in parents. Sociology professor Frank Furedi wrote the book License to Hug about the issue, chronicles some examples: a mother who couldn't kiss her child goodbye on a school trip, another barred from taking her child to a school event, and a father who gets "filthy looks" when he takes his child swimming. The most horrific example is the story of a bricklayer who did not help a lost two-year-old because he feared being thought an abductor. The girl later drowned.
Pervasive CRB checking also teaches parents to ignore their own parenting instincts. As Furedi says, "If adults are not expected to respond to problems in accordance with their experience and intuition they will have little incentive to develop the kind of skills required to manage children and young people."
The assumption -- contrary to all data -- that everyone is a child predator unless checked by the police poisons the natural relationship between children and adults, and directly affects their welfare. Half of all adults fear being falsely accused of being abusers and 13% of men don't volunteer as a result. At the same time, 50,000 girls can't join the Guides because of a shortage of CRB-checked adults, and kids' sports leagues are drastically cutting back.
A parent's natural reaction is "If it were your child, you'd do anything…." This is natural -- we're all predisposed to exaggerate risks that are extreme, that are from strangers, and that are against our children. Over several generations, children have had less freedom than their parents, even though the data doesn't warrant it. When evaluating risks, we respond more to stories than to data.
This enormous government hydra, first proposed in 1996 and which Furedi estimates has cost half a billion pounds since it was implemented 2002, seems to have been sold primarily on two stories: the 1997 murder of ten-year-old Scott Simpson by convicted sex offender Stephen Leisk, and the 2002 murders of 10-year-olds Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells by school caretaker Ian Huntley. As gruesome as these stories are, they're don't make a basis for sound policy. Government database checking is no substitute for alert parenting.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of BT.