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In Great Britain, you're a pedophile unless you prove otherwise

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In America, if a school employee lures two little girls to their deaths, it’s Thursday. In Great Britain, it’s the reason to put in the world’s most exhaustive system of background checks for anyone who works with children, including in youth sports.

Starting Oct. 12, anybody paid to work with children (or “vulnerable adults”) in any controlled setting must pay 64 pounds and register with the Independent Safeguarding Authority, a recently developed government agency borne out of Parliamentary legislation enacted in the wake of the Soham murders. That was a 2002 case where a school employee lured two 10-year-old girls to his house and murdered them. A volunteer doesn’t have to pay, but does have to register.

The ISA will maintain a national database, called the Vetting and Barring Scheme, that can be accessed by anyone doing background checks on those working with youth. (The ISA excludes Scotland, which is introducing its own version of this and will interact with the British system.) It’s a one-stop data shop that is supposed to replace the patchwork of local authorities responsible for maintaining such lists, thus making it easier to determine if that coach is creepy as you think he is.

In fact, in the case of the killer, Ian Huntley, it was worse than that: according to a government report, one police agency had destroyed previous records on child abusers, the other involved in the investigation had previously failed to vet Huntley before giving him a stamp of approval, and turned out to have a few child predators on the force.

So with all of that, does an extensive national database sound reasonable? Or does that sound like the path that America took to determining every traveler a terrorist until proven otherwise?

Like how Americans started complaining about how hard it was to get on a stinking plane when the TSA started feeling up grannies, banning your toothpaste and putting everyone on a terrorist watch list (I’m on it! I learned that a few years ago when I tried to do an electronic check-in and wasn’t allowed), many Britons are screaming how about something for their own good is turning out to be so intrusive.

And why wouldn’t they? Taking out the population of Scotland and anyone younger than age 16, the expected 11.3 million names on the Vetting and Barring Scheme represents one out of every four adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

How extensive is the list? You’re not on it for driving your own child back and forth to practice. But if you take other people’s children along on a formal, regular basis, you must register. If you don’t register, you can face a fine of up to 5,000 pounds.

Many are concerned volunteers won’t come out anymore because of the scheme. Soccer, er, football coaches find it onerous, too. Children’s book authors say they won’t read their books at schools anymore, because they’ll have to register if they do. One author, Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, the book that became “The Golden Compass” at the movies, told a newspaper the scheme was “corrosive to healthy social interaction” because it will encourage children to see everyone as a potential rapist or killer. “Why should I have to pay £64 to a government agency to give me a little certificate to say I’m not a paedophile?”

Sir Roger Singleton, the head of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, told the BBC that the upset over the law was legitimate, and that the rules are under review. But the ISA isn’t going away.

However, the existence of the ISA isn’t necessarily going to make anyone any safer. Ian Huntley was already on a predator list. The problem, as previously mentioned, was that police in one jurisdiction didn’t pass that information on to another in the course of a background check. Presumably, a national database will take care of this problem by taking these lists out of the hands of localities.

However, it’s still very possible for a child predator to fall through the cracks in the Vetting and Barring Scheme. After all, if anyone has not been convicted of a crime, they’re not going to be on the list. Being creepy isn’t a reason to get red-flagged.

Personally, I understand as a parent the need for background checks and steps to protect kids from predators, especially after the father of one of my daughter’s friends was busted on child-porn charges. (That was the hardest conversation ever as a parent, trying to ask your 6-year-old daughter if anything, um, strange ever happened at her friend’s house without getting graphic about what we were trying to find out.) But in the end, it’s almost impossible to stop a determined child predator, particularly one who has never been found guilty of a crime, to get through. Instead, rules like never have an adult alone with a single child and other means to prevent potentially dangerous interactions make much more sense.

Perhaps all the restrictions put in place after Sept. 11, 2001, have resulted in Americans being safer. But it didn’t take long for many to feel that taking off your shoes as you go through the metal detactors at the airport was more about the government trying to make us believe we were safe, rather than something that made us safe. Many in Great Britain are feeling the same way about the Vetting and Barring Scheme, and no one has yet had to send the first 64 pounds to be proven not-a-pedophile.

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An American teen, noting the Harry Potter author’s distaste for the VBS, says she will never teach her children, “J.K. Rowling is going to come in the night and touch them inappropriately.” Yeah, everyone’s a know-it-all before they become a parent.

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