Analysis: What action is needed in the light of the Vanessa George nursery sex abuse case?

Leading early years practitioners and experts are calling on the sector to respond with common sense and sensitivity following the allegations of child sexual abuse made against a nursery worker in Plymouth.

Vanessa George, aged 39, who worked at Little Ted's nursery in the city, has been charged with making and distributing indecent images of children and with sexually assaulting children.

Childcare professionals, while expressing their shock at the case, say their colleagues must reassure parents about the policies and procedures they have in place to protect children rather than respond with a knee-jerk reaction and ban photographs in their settings.

‘When these dreadful things happen there is often a strong reaction,' says early years consultant Helen Bromley. ‘But we can only hope now that any reaction is tempered and will not impact on best practice. We have just managed to convince people that using photography is a really good thing. My fear is that we will go back to a situation where nobody will take photographs.'

‘Sometimes after an incident common sense goes out the window,' says Susanna Dawson, Chair of the National Childminding Association. ‘A while ago schools got into the position of refusing to let parents take photographs at the annual nativity play. We just don't want to get into that situation again.'

‘The use of digital cameras and videos are an integral part of nursery practice, says Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association. 'Recent reports may cause parents to worry about the use of these in a setting. However, it is vital that nurseries are not discouraged from using these. Indeed, they can be a fantastic way for parents to see what their child has been doing and settings often use them to evidence a child's learning journey.

‘As soon as practitioners start making really personalised resources, attainment rockets,' says Ms Bromley. ‘The child's enthusiasm and motivation rockets. I am currently preparing a power point presentation and inserting six alphabet charts made with photographs of children. They are simply the best phonics resources I have ever seen. You can't buy them, you can only make them.'

She argues that settings need to respond to any concerns parents raise about photography with sensitivity and explain the value of using photographs without being defensive.


Clear policies

Ms Tanuku says, ‘Nurseries may find that they need to ensure that they have a clear and understandable policy in place which not only demonstrates to parents the value of such media, but also shares how the nursery will always ensure that such media is used appropriately, and pictures and videos stored safely and in line with Data Protection requirements. It is also important to have a clear policy for staff, such as if mobile telephones are allowed into the nursery and times they can be used.'

‘In our nurseries, staff know that having their personal mobile telephones with them in the playrooms is potentially a disciplinary offence,' says Sue Meekings director of childcare at the Kiddi Caru settings. ‘When people are working they should not be sending text messages but it is also about not using them to take photographs.

‘We are very rigorous that we only use the nursery's cameras and staff do not bring in their own cameras. The nursery cameras and memory sticks are locked up over night.

‘We obtain parental permission for capturing images of children and we are sensitive about this. Once a photo of an individual child has been used for a display it is put with that child's record and we will release the photo to the child's family or it is shredded.'

‘I run courses on using photography in the early years and most places now have permission slips for taking photographs,' says Ms Bromley. ‘There are layers of permission, one is to use photography for children's learning journeys within settings and then you can ask further permission to use the image in the production of resources.'


Recruitment checks

‘Some parents have been worried by recent media reports, especially the perception that a CRB check might be the only child protection measure,' says Ms Tanuku. ‘This of course is not the case, and we have been advising members to highlight the stringent measures they have in place, including their Safeguarding Policy and approach to recruitment, including references and induction.

‘With the Independent Safeguarding Authority coming into place, employers will have a way to report any behaviour that they believe may cause that person to be a risk to children; this can then be tracked against an individual's registration and action taken should a pattern emerge. NDNA believes this will further enhance safer recruitment. ‘

‘A CRB clearance certificate is not a reference,' says Ms Meekings, ‘It is not an indicator of good intent. It is an indicator that the person hasn't been caught. The reality is the CRB system is about deterring someone who has been caught from trying to get a job working with children

‘I think sometimes providers put themselves at risk by thinking that if someone has a CRB clearance they must be a nice person but it is not as straightforward as that and you need sound safeguarding polices in place. You should avoid solo working and there should be transparency so people can see what their colleagues are doing.'

If people are worried about something happening in their setting, they must take action, says child psychotherapist Robin Balbernie. ‘If the children begin to behave differently and display symptoms or a colleague behaves oddly, people should speak up.'

‘I would echo that,' says Ms Bromley. ‘The trouble is people often do not want to rock the boat.  It is about the culture of an organisation and giving people the confidence to feel that they can express their opinions.'

‘We have a culture of openness,' says Ms Meekings. ‘We tell our staff the reasons for our policies and procedures so if somebody sees something untoward they would say something and say it very fast.

‘At induction, our staff have to read the safeguarding policy and they get issued with advice about what to do if they are worried. At the end of their first week new staff take an assessment on child protection.'


Public attitudes

Will this case deter parent from using childcare? ‘Parental concerns will be an obvious implication following the media reports,' says Ms Tanuku. ‘Parents of course do need to enjoy a trusting relationship with their child's nursery and have confidence that they have chosen the right childcare for them.

‘Whilst recent headlines have been highly concerning, it is important to remember that the vast majority of childcarers who work in this sector do so because they are dedicated to quality care, and are committed to delivering the best outcomes for children.

‘Fortunately, these events are incredibly rare,' says Ms Dawson. ‘I don't think it will have an impact on parents who already use childcare as they will know their settings.

‘From my own experience as a childminder I know that my parents know me sufficiently well that, regardless of what happens elsewhere, they trust me.

‘There may be more impact on the general public among people who do not use childcare who might well still have very strong feelings and opinions about this.'



‘There is the stereotype that it is men who are abusers,' says Robin Balbernie. ‘But that is not so. It is less common among women, but it happens - and more than we would like.'

According to Dr Michele Elliott, founder and director of the charity Kidscape, conservative estimates suggest that 5% of girls and 20% of boys who have reported being abused, have been abused by women. But she says from her research into the 800 cases reported to her, she believes that the more likely figure is that 20% of all sexual abuse is perpetrated by woman.

‘I don't understand why people get so upset that a woman is involved.' says Mr Balbernie. ‘Women do do this sort of thing. I think people get upset because we idealise women and motherhood and it breaks that idealism that men are rotters and women are angels of life.

‘There is a general statistic that most people who abuse have themselves been abused although thankfully, most people who are abused don't go on and abuse. If you have been mistreated yourself by your parents in the first three years of life, you lose your grasp on reality, lose the ability to have empathy and to see the point of view of other people. You lose that brake, that voice saying this is not acceptable behaviour.'



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