Jimmy Savile: The road to hypervigilance

By Vanessa Barford & Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
Jimmy Savile

The Jimmy Savile case has highlighted how much the culture of child protection has changed in the last 40 years. But what was behind the transformation?

One of the extraordinary things about the Jimmy Savile case is the level of regular, easy access he appears to have had to vulnerable children in institutions such as care homes, schools, hospitals and the BBC.

It has emerged Savile had a room at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, keys to doors at Broadmoor secure hospital and a caravan he often parked on BBC premises.

Victims from Duncroft children's home have said there was a sense of it being an "honour" to get a visit - or allegedly, even get taken on a day trip, unsupervised - by someone so famous.

In an age of criminal records checks and children's rights, it seems almost inconceivable that someone would be allowed such unfettered access.

To take the example of a school in England, the Department for Education's Safeguarding Children guidelines - which run to more than 100 pages - recommend strict procedures for vetting volunteers.

If a celebrity like Savile was today a regular visitor to a school, for example once a month, he would typically be subject to an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check.

The CRB checks individuals' records on the Police National Computer in England and Wales. Separate bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland do the same thing.

Convictions for offences against children and certain other offences are likely to stop somebody working with children.

In the wake of the Soham murders, carried out by school caretaker Ian Huntley, the rules were changed. "Enhanced" checks also reveal where an individual has been investigated by police but there has been no conviction.

Anyone working in a school would also be checked against the Independent Safeguarding Authority's (ISA) barred list, a database of people deemed unsuitable to work with children.

"Under no circumstances must a volunteer who has not obtained a CRB Disclosure… be left unsupervised with children," the Department for Education guidelines state.

But there is of course no guarantee that a CRB check can prevent abusers working with children. They may never have been investigated by police.

The main difference between now and the 1970s is arguably the level of vigilance. Inappropriate behaviour towards children rapidly raises alarm bells today. And what is deemed inappropriate has changed.

There is a culture of hypervigilance.

Grooming by paedophiles - the process of winning the trust of victims - is better understood. This in contrast to the 1980s and before.

"It wouldn't have occurred to us to think people wanted to harm children," says Sue Palmer, a former primary headteacher and author. "If we went on school trips, we'd often get parents involved. If a child was sent to the head teacher, it would be normal to shut the door."

There was generally "open access" to schools, she recalls.

Now any institution that deals regularly with children in the UK will have a child protection policy in place - churches and broadcasters among them.

Image caption,
Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were killed by a school caretaker

The BBC's own child protection policy mandates CRB checks for those working alone with children. It also insists that every division has a nominated child protection manager.

The NHS requires all staff who have contact with children and/or vulnerable adults in the course of their normal duties to have a CRB check.

Child abuse is now a national obsession, but in the 1960s it scarcely came up as a subject of public concern.

Jon Brown, head of strategy and development of the NSPCC, agrees attitudes were very different.

The 1980s, with some notable child abuse scandals, was in many ways the decade that child sexual abuse was "discovered". The Children Act 1989 became a massive landmark in child protection.

People started to understand that abuse typically happened within families, but the threat to children in institutions from abusers also became clearer.

"Before that people thought, if children were unfortunate enough to be abused, it would be by dirty old men in raincoats, and outside the family," Brown says.

The death of eight-year old Victoria Climbie in 2000 helped lead to the Children Act 2004, which placed a duty on local authorities to appoint a director of children's services. The death of Baby P too kept the issue of child protection high on the public consciousness.

Prof Andrew Kendrick, an expert in children in care from the University of Strathclyde, says that it wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that the nature of abuse and child protection in residential children's homes was really brought to the fore.

"Cases had been brought and prosecuted before then - as far back as the 1930s and further," he says. "But it was a different culture. In the 1970s there was some understanding of issues of sexual abuse in care homes. Abusers were good at hiding the abuse in terms of their colleagues etc.

"But what wasn't really understood until the 80s and 90s was the exact nature and scale of abuse - although it is still impossible to say what the scale of the abuse was."

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the whole notion of child abuse was becoming part of the public discourse. From the mid-1980s onwards, there was an enormous change in general public awareness assisted by organisations like Esther Rantzen's Childline, which allowed children to report abuse.

But Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children's Homes Association, says that in the 1970s those who ran children's homes were starting to understand sexual abuse.

"There was a rapid and positive change in terms of establishing a professional framework. And a steady building up of a structure over the decades. Professional child protection responses became increasingly structured and codified."

Professionals started to understand non-verbal signs that children were suffering abuse.

Homes have steadily become smaller and more rules are in place.

"Children's homes are the most regulated of all children's services," says Stanley. There are two independent inspections a year, numerous visits by social workers, internal and external monitoring, complaints procedures that must be acted on, and advocacy programmes.

"In recruitment and selection homes scrutinise applicants. Forms are analysed for strengths in working with young people but also things like gaps in career history."

Brown says although it would be harder for someone like Savile to offend today, it wouldn't be impossible.

"It's a safe bet to say the risk of people in organisations getting access to children and abusing them has been decreased, but sex offenders are incredibly devious and manipulative. They will always try and find a weakness."

Palmer too welcomes the development of child protection of schools, saying there is now a "pervasive" culture of ensuring that children are not molested, or even left alone with a sole adult.

But she says there are downsides to the cultural shift.

"There's a sense of everyone keeping an eye on everyone else. People can become paranoid - they can be frightened of putting a plaster on a child's knee.

"On one hand we are stopping occasional awful things from happening, but on the other hand it is breaking down human interaction when it comes to caring for children," she says.