This joint PLAYLINK/Free Play Network Discussion Forum was prompted by questions and concerns from practitioners about how child protection should be interpreted in a range of settings.
One of the aims was to put in the public domain the real disquiet that many people feel about current interpretations of 'good practice' in child protection.
Many contributors to the discussion forum felt concerned that current policies, training and practice was preventing those working with children and young people from receiving cuddles and physical comfort, even when it was thought to be the right thing to do. Practitioners reported that "the child's emotional well being and the need for comfort has been forgotten" or sidelined due to fear of being accused of breaching "good practice" guidance on child protection.
Where staff are "allowed" to comfort children this, too often, requires them to adopt bizarre postures and bodily contortions designed to avoid 'too much' contact. Then there are the protocols and practices devised to ensure that a child is not left alone with a single adult. This affects staff working across all provision for children: nurseries, schools, adventure playgrounds, and out of school provision.
Men in the sector say they are particularly advised not to have physical contact with children or to look after children unless accompanied by another adult. This raises questions about the messages we are giving to children about gender roles, let alone the implications for Government's aim to attract more men into the childcare sector.
Are these procedures really of benefit to children? Or have current procedures and practices started to confuse child protection with staff protection?
Dr Heather Piper, of Manchester Metropolitan University, a researcher in this area and Discussion Forum facilitator, is quite clear:
'The day child protection training started confusing child protection and staff protection was a bad day for children and professionals alike. It's best to remember that trainers who offer this sort of advice are caught up in the moral panic themselves, but others do not have a responsibility to follow suit.'
As another participant notes:
'It is very important for children to get comfort when they need it and ... for children to benefit from contact with warm caring adults who give them care and touch as they want it.'
Another comments that discussion:
'...about limits to physical contact has very little to do with the protection of children. An arm round the shoulder or a comforting cuddle cannot be considered or mistaken by a child for physical abuse. The issue is of course the protection of adults from accusation...'
And is this really what parents and children want? A trainer in this area, Sharon Walsh, makes the telling point that:
'Workers are often far more worried than they need to be, and when asked to participate in drawing up these codes will often make the most conservative choices. ... if parents and children are participants in the process, they are far more willing to allow cuddles and physical play.
In response, Dr Heather Piper suggests:
'This may well be a good way forward. Involving parents and children may bring some sense to the situation. Government policy also promotes 'snuggling in' for young children - so not sure how this is possible with an over cautious approach. The conservative and cautious attitudes seemed to be driven from the middle (trainers, inspectors etc) not the 'top' (policy) nor the 'bottom' (families).'
The Child Protection Discussion Forum also highlights some interesting questions that have wider application:
- What is the role and status of individual judgment when making decisions about 'best possible' action in particular circumstances?
- To what extent do 'good' and 'best' practice guides, as currently written, simply reinforce current orthodoxies? To what extent do they in practice close down, rather than open up, the possibility of independent judgment?
- And to what extent have we who are involved with children and young people imposed upon ourselves the restrictions under which we claim to labour?
These are not questions that should be avoided.
Nicola Butler is Director of the Free Play Network. Bernard Spiegal is Principal of PLAYLINK.