Children and risk

Two stories have really captured my imagination today – that of Jaycee Lee Dugard who was abducted 18 years ago, and that of 13 year old Laura Dekker who wants to sail solo around the world.

They both seem to highlight a fundamental question regarding child welfare – to what extent should the State involve itself in the protection of children?

Obviously, as one of the most vulnerable groups within any society, children should be protected from harm, but the two cases I’m citing seem to throw up some interesting points that might answer my question.

The Dugard case – whilst bizarre – has elements of recent UK child abuse and murder cases in that although neighbours reported that there were children living in tents in the backyard, the abductor Garrido was a registered sex offender and the police actually visited the house, nothing was done at the time.

In this case, there was a clear failure on the part of the authorities to monitor sex offenders properly.

On the other hand, the Dekker case is unique in that it has a 13 year old put under (not ‘into’, please note) care because her parents wanted her to be allowed to miss school for two years to sail solo around the world. Pretty amazing, although the fact that the girl had her own yacht at the age of 6 must be some indication that she knows how to sail. In this case, at least, the authorities have acted in good time.

As I’ve said, the Dugard case is one that illustrates failure to protect children from the threat of paedophiles, but what about the Dekker case – are the authorities right on this occasion?

On the face of it it might seem so, but I’m not so sure.

Small boat ocean sailing these days may still be fraught with danger, but with GPS devices, satellite radios and better boat construction, it’s never been safer and I can’t imagine for a moment that Mr Dekker is going to send his daughter out in a leaky tub with a compass out of an Xmas cracker and a Maplins walkie-talkie. Neither can I see Mr Dekker checking back on Laura in two years’ time – he’s going to be monitoring her progress constantly.

Here’s what Laura herself has to say:

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve known that I would like to sail around the world.

I want simply to learn about the world and to live freely.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that admirable.

And think of the confidence her parents must have in her ability to succeed. That’s not something casually bestowed.

Inevitably, the Dugard case has brought up the Madeleine McCann affair again and raised the possibility that something similar might have happened to her.

The Madeleine references have also helped me towards an answer to my original question.

Although there’s a world of difference between leaving a 3 year old for half an hour whilst you go off to have dinner with some friends and allowing your 13 year old daughter to sail around the world for two years, I find myself forced to the conclusion that the Dekkers come out of all this as far more responsible parents than the McCanns.

Given the age difference and other circumstances, Laura’s plans don’t seem as risky as they appear on the surface.

And, as usual, the real victim in all of this is common sense.

Yes, we should protect our children, but we shouldn’t insulate them from the real world and the consequences of their own actions as part of it.

We owe it to them to protect them from obvious and potential dangers but we also have a duty and responsibility to allow them enough freedom to develop their own sense of responsibility. However, we seem to be doing neither very well at present.

As in most matters, the State thinks it knows best, but a society within which children are abused and murdered whilst being allowed to develop without any sense of personal responsibility would suggest otherwise and activities that I took for granted in my childhood, such as climbing trees, are now the subject of risk assessment.

Playgrounds that I played on as a kid just wouldn’t be allowed anymore, although I can’t recall any accidents resulting in anything worse than a scraped knee, and would have been closed following a risk assessment by a group of over-protective, over-educated, overpaid, underworked shitheads.

But has anyone ever assessed the risk of risk assessment?

Maybe it’s time someone did before we produce yet another generation who can’t think for themselves and give the State a self-perpetuating excuse to do it for them…