The paedophile panic is undermining voluntarism

When I was 19 years old, I attended a meeting for a youth group I intended to volunteer with while at university. Much to my surprise, I was asked by a parent: ‘Why are you here if you don’t have kids?’ I was told that I couldn’t know how to be responsible for children because I didn’t have my own.

This was an extreme example of the distrust many people feel about adult-child relationships. But many adult volunteers will have experienced similar things – and it seems to be having an impact. Last week, the Guardian reported that the number of adults volunteering for youth groups has hit at a record low, with 51,000 young people on waiting lists to join the Scouts because of volunteer shortages. Kids who want to join community groups are unable to because there are simply not enough adults to supervise.

There are many reasons why adults might not be willing to give up their spare time to volunteer with youth groups. But the fact they’re treated like wrong-doers before they even begin definitely has something to do with it. The Savile scandal has heightened an already prevalent panic about child sexual abuse, instilling even more fear in parents and caregivers about their kids’ relationships with other adults. Alongside these attitudinal barriers, volunteers have to overcome difficult statutory and procedural hurdles in order to start volunteering.

Put simply, we don’t have a positive culture of volunteering in the UK. It can take months for an adult to be screened by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) – then there’s safeguarding training, seeking references and finding a suitable place to volunteer. It’s hardly surprising that most adults aren’t willing to put themselves through this arduous process.

As a result, youth organisations are struggling to recruit enough motivated, quality leaders to keep up with demand. And it’s not just the Scouts. This is also the case in smaller youth organisations and local youth groups.

This is a great shame. I have been active in Woodcraft Folk, a cooperative youth movement, throughout my life. I was a member as a child, a group leader and later I worked on the national board. What I hear time and again from members is how being active in the group has changed their life, and given them opportunities they would never have found elsewhere. Youth groups foster child-adult relationships with people outside of their family circles. They are a valuable socialisation tool for kids and adults alike.

So how do we make our youth groups and organisations more sustainable in terms of recruiting and retaining volunteers? The first step is to create a positive culture around volunteering that doesn’t put potential volunteers off. Safeguarding comes down to common sense. A DBS check is not the magic, infallible test that will weed out paedophiles. In fact, most safeguarding issues come from those who have no criminal record, and therefore aren’t flagged by a DBS check. We should trust those working in youth groups to be good judges of character, and rather than treating all adults as potential abusers, we need to trust new volunteers and welcome them with open arms.

If I had walked out of that room at 19, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Volunteering is about so much more than an altruistic gesture or a line on your CV. For me, there’s no greater pleasure than seeing the kids I’ve worked with become confident, opinionated and mature young people. Both adults thinking about volunteering and youth groups themselves need to challenge this fear of adult-child relationships, and contribute to building a society that is more open, accepting and self-confident.

Carly Walker-Dawson is a socialist, feminist educator and the secretary general of the International Falcon Movement – Socialist Educational International.

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