The Blog

Assessing Risk of Child Abuse Is Not a Numbers Game

Gove and his department must take a serious look at their policies to prevent such cases passing through the net.

A Department of Education decision to allow a teacher found guilty of downloading child abuse images to be allowed to return to the classroom demonstrates a baffling lack of understanding of the risks posed by paedophiles.

Commenting on the case, the National College for Teaching and Leadership's (NCTL) professional conduct panel judged that the images in question were 'not at the most serious end' of the Copine scale, a scale which measures the severity of child pornography images from one to five.

This decision will raise concerns for all parents whose children could come under the care of such an individual. Rather than err on the side of caution and in the interest of child safety, the Department of Education has incorrectly concluded that because the images viewed by the teacher were not the most severe, he poses no risk to children. This is not the case.

The Copine system is purely a tool used to inform judges of the severity of any set of abuse images. It serves as a means to decide what sentence is appropriate for any given case, and should not be used to build a psychological profile of paedophiles. As such, the NCTL was entirely wrong to reference it in justifying its decision. The fact that an image is 'less severe' does not indicate that an individual poses less of a threat to children, and certainly should not have any currency in employment decisions. It is essential that the purpose of the Copine scale in informing sentencing decisions is not confused with the much more difficult area of assessing an individual's risk to children.

Indeed, psychological testing is not itself infallible. What parent would not opt to err on the side of caution where there is demonstrable proof that a teacher has downloaded and viewed child pornography? The Department of Education's failure to consider this case from the parent's perspective is symptomatic of wider failures to take practical steps to tackle child abuse. Gove and his department must take a serious look at their policies to prevent such cases passing through the net.

This problem has been further highlighted in a report released this week which warns that victims of sexual exploitation are continuing to be failed. The report, released by the Home Affairs Committee, was highly critical of how local authorities are responding to the desperate need for adequate support for vulnerable children at risk of abuse. Referring to recent cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, the report recommends a holistic approach towards safeguarding children, which provides local authorities with the necessary training to be able to guarantee vulnerable children a safety net which at the moment is largely lacking.

The responsibilities for these changes do not merely lie with local councils, however. David Cameron has rightly placed internet companies in the firing line, calling for a 'council of war' summit to urgently discuss the role of online organisations in curbing the current availability of child pornography on the web. Figures from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) have suggested that more than half of people who have seen child abuse images go on to commit abuse themselves. Clearly, for a holistic approach to tackling child approach to truly take hold, calling these online companies to account is crucial.

It is time for all relevant groups, from governments to local authorities and employers, to face up to their responsibilities and work towards a long-term solution to safeguarding vulnerable children and bringing paedophiles to justice. Without such a comprehensive strategy, the system will continue to fail those who are least able to protect themselves.