Friday, 6 April 2012

Is abuse protection in amateur theatre too restrictive?

I was reading an article in the Daily Mail about the experiences of a mother of  a young child who had been picked for the part of Oliver in a school production. The article is entitled "How the child-abuse gestapo turned my son’s play into a drama". The clue is in the title. Excited and encouraged by the occasion, and her son's success, she volunteered to do some "chaperoning" for the show.

In the old days, parents could just turn up on the night to vaguely watch the budding child stars off stage, and make sure they were not misbehaving. Not now. In order be in close proximity of children - even your own child -  it is necessary to acquire a "matroning" qualification from the local council, which in this case was Sussex, whom I happen to know, all to their credit, take their safeguarding obligations very seriously.

She describes in the article how the process of qualification involved an onerous series of lectures, spot checks by the matroning officer of the local authority, and exhortations to report the slightest sign of inappropriate behaviour during the show, so that the safeguarding officer could do an investigation. She was apparently advised that before giving the children orange squash to drink, she ought to taste it herself first to make sure it was safe.

Sadly, her certificate did not come through until after the show was over, so she did not participate at all, or help out in the way she wanted to. She sat in the audience. All her good intentions went to waste. She was horrified at the warnings of doom she was given, and the hoops she had to jump through in order to just help out with her son's school show.

As a child abuse lawer, I witness the way in which, in the past at least, paedophiles have infiltrated voluntary groups, schools, scouting assocations, sporting clubs, indeed anywhere one would find children. The more amateurish the organisation, the more desparate they are for volunteers. Understandably they have been overjoyed to have encountered such willing workers run their lacking in funds, overstretched, organisations. Sadly, they have often mistaken overly enthusiastic volunteers for oversexed predatory paedophiles, who have sexually and physically abused many children over several years without being detected.

The more lax the supervision, and vetting, the easier it is for the sex offender to do his worst undetected and un-suspected. Thus it is just these organisations that need the structure, which several governments have introduced over the last 15 years ever since the child abuse scandals unfolded in the late 1990's.

I am a the publicity officer of Macclesfield Majestic Theatre Group. We put on between two and three shows per year including our annual pantomime in January. I have witnessed how the safeguarding rules operate from the point of view of administrative organisers of a show. We use between 10 and 20 children in various parts of the show, as well as young members of cast and chorus, all of whom need to be chaperoned throughout the currency of rehearsals and the week of the show.

Not only do we need a huge team of qualified chaperones, but also a chaperone leader, whose thankless task it is to ensure that the safeguarding operates properly. We use a delightful local theatre with some dressing room space, but not nearly enough to provide the correct segregation the law requires, For instance a 4 year old boy is not allowed to share a dressing room with a 5 year old girl because they are separate genders, and a 17 year old girl cannot be in the same area as a 15 year old girl even if they are sisters.

At the theatre it is practically impossible to create as many separate areas as are needed. The result is that the cast are bunched up into impossibly small spaces, and do not mix together as much as they would like to. This defeats the whole purpose of the show. The buzz is the thing. If, for instance there is only one child in a particlarly age and gender category, they may end up on their own in a cold and draughty part of the theatre with one designated chaperone.

So well meaning and well intentioned the regulations may be, they are interpreted differently by different local authorities. Sometimes we doubt at the Majestic whether we will be able to put on a pantomime because of our chaperoning obligations.

Did you know, for example, that a mother of a 15 year old girl cannot share the same dressing area as her performing mother because she has to be chaperoned separately. Should she trespass into the wrong area she has to be removed and taken away from her mother.I am sure you can see that such a rule is a recipe for trouble. The theory is that if mother is performing, she cannot chaperone her own daughter effectively because for some of the time she will be on stage. You can understand the logic.

So which way do I lean when it comes to arriving at a conclusion. I have to say that the spirit of the regulations is absolutely right. Children need protection. Nonetheless I do feel guilty that it has been my campaigning and political agitation that has brought about these regulations. On the other hand local well meaning voluntary organisations need rules which make sense. The very last thing we want is for willing and enthusiastic parents to be turned away or put off by the many hoops they have to jump through, before they are allowed to chaperone their own children.

The article ends fittingly "if anyone asks me to help with a show again, I know where I will be — at home, glass in hand watching the TV."

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