“Which is more important: child protection or civil liberties?”

“Which is more important: child protection or civil liberties?”

“Which is more important: child protection or civil liberties?” So asked the London Telegraph this week after it reported that Britain is slowly building the world’s biggest database to determine who is allowed to work or volunteer with children and vulnerable adults.

It revealed that officials will not just look at an individual’s criminal record to decide if they are safe to build up relationships of trust with the young or vulnerable, but will also be allowed to take into account allegations made by former employers or the public, and rule that an applicant appears dangerous because they are unable to build up relationships or if they have a complicated private life.

This issue of child protection versus civil liberties is important, and one that is not going to go away.

While many people find it tempting to say that we should do “anything it takes” to protect children, really, the question asked at the beginning of this article sets up a false dichotomy: It assumes that if we were willing to give up all our civil liberties, we would be able to stamp out child sexual abuse.

This is clearly not true. It is well-known that a child is most likely to be sexually abused by someone they know, and approximately 30% of perpetrators are family members of the victim.

As the US and the UK strengthen their laws surrounding identity checks for people working with children and also the rules that people who have been charged with a sexual crime must obey, I think it is worth thinking about the consequences – both intended and unintended – of such laws.

Now, before you get all up-in-arms about me not thinking about the children, I should clarify that I don’t think the right to liberty over-rules the right to safety, particularly child safety. However, I do think that the laws that are put in place to protect child safety should be subject to oversight and debate and should also be reviewed to see if they actually work.

The Economist recently published an excellent and moving piece of writing about this issue. In America, every state has a rule requiring sex offenders to register on a list and also follow many different rules (such as not living within 100 metres of a playground or school).

Furthermore, as in Australia, the allure of the popularity of “cracking down” on paedophiles is something that is felt by many politicians.

The Economist tells the story of a woman, Wendy Whitaker, who was put on the sex offenders list after having oral sex with her boyfriend when she was 17 and he was three weeks shy of his 16th birthday.

The degree for which she has suffered for her actions is truly heart-breaking. She is now listed on a public register, along with her crime of “sodomy”. She has been incarcerated, had her family home broadcast on local television along with a map explaining how to get there, and been evicted from her home because it was too close to a shopping centre.

The Economist also highlights the extent to which different states and counties have gone to try to protect their citizens from sex offenders: in one case a law was passed banning sex offenders from living within 1000 feet of a school bus stop. The law was overturned when the country sheriff realised he would have to evict nearly 500 people from the town.

“Other than the bottom of a lake or the middle of a forest, there was hardly anywhere in Georgia for them to live legally,” the article says.

In America, over 674 000 people are currently on a sex offenders register.

While our laws here in Australia can barely be compared with the American ones (and yet I’m sure we don’t have higher rates of sexual assaults against children), every month or so there are new reports of politicians thinking up new and better ways to crack down on sex offenders.

The question is, do these crack-downs work? And, if they do, are we as a society willing to accept that inevitably there will be people who have been rehabilitated but who never-the-less will have their lives ruined? Or people, such as Wendy Whitaker, who most of us would judge did not even commit much of a crime in the first place, who will suffer the consequences of a stupid mistakes for the rest of their lives?

My instinct is that rather than promising more and more monitoring and tracking of offenders, politicians should be promising more money into research that discovers exactly what works when it comes to protecting children from sexual assault.

About the Author

Amy is a Sydney-based journalist and commentator with an interest in politics, music, culture and evidence-based medicine. She is currently working as a medical journalist for a series of "Specialist Update" websites, and she has also been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey, New Matilda, and Vibewire's anthology "Interface". She was a panelist with the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2007 and 2008, organised the Sydney Writers' Festival event "erotic fan fiction" in 2009, and is a regular broadcaster on FBi radio.