Recent amendments to child protection law have a renewed focus on child-safe environments designed to keep our children safe at school, at clubs, at camps and in churches.
A lot of this activity is about restrictions, such as keeping certain people out, increasing adult supervision of children, limiting movement in cars and open space.
This is done with the right motives. We have a special responsibility towards children that comes with being dependable adults.
Truly child safe environments do not pen children in but offer freedom to explore, move, participate and engage. They’re increasingly referred to as child-friendly environments or child-focused or child-centric.
They look different because children are present, usually in person and sometimes in symbols. It requires us to really like children, to have them participate and voice
opinions. It requires us to consider how they see the world.
But what does participation and engagement have to do with child safety? Evidence here and overseas demonstrates that children who are encouraged to be present, to be heard and to engage are also much more likely to speak up when they feel unsafe. Indeed, it is a major determinant of protection and early disclosure.
Disclosures by children of abuse have been dismissed in the past and partly account for the extensive and belated reparation required now as a result of formal inquiries. So listening and believing is essential too.
While adults readily accept that children have rights to be safe from harm and free from exploitation we often find other rights challenging. Rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and to express views come smack up against strong Anglo traditions of ‘protecting’ children from major decisions and changes, and silencing them in adult company. Obviously child-environments like schools are streets ahead on participation. But the right to be safe from harm is partly dependent on the right to be heard and to express views.
Frequent contact between children, young people and adults who have genuine interest in their wellbeing is a protective measure and a winning one.