Sarah’s Law


Written by Heather Kennedy
23 Monday 23rd August 2010

Supporters of Sarah’s Law claimed a victory last week as the Home Office announced the law will be rolled out to the entire country by spring 2011. The scheme allows worried adults to raise concern about suspected sex offenders living in their area who have access to their children. Home secretary Theresa May has hailed this decision an "important step forward for child protection".  

The law comes as the result of a long battle by bereaved mother Sara Payne and the Sun newspaper. It is ten years since Sarah Payne was murdered by convicted paedophile Roy Whiting. Named after the murdered eight year-old, the law claims to protect children against the Roy Whitings and Ian Huntleys of the present day. 
Inspiration for Sarah’s Law came from Megan’s Law in America (named after murdered seven year-old Megan Kanka). Very different in detail, both laws hold at their core one common assumption: that paedophiles are beyond rehabilitation. This assumption acknowledges that someone inclined to prey sexually on children is unlikely to be deterred by simply a stern word and a stint in the slammer. The introduction of Sarah’s Law tells us many things about our society. One of these is that when it comes to child sex offenders, we have abandoned faith in the current legal framework. 
‘Max’, a probation worker who specialises in chronic child sex offenders agrees that trying to apply this framework to paedophiles is a joke. “We can’t assume that punishment will be enough to deter people who habitually abuse children. The result is we’re letting people back into the community who pose a serious risk”. 
He believes we need a system where sex offenders remain in halfway houses until a team of professionals are willing to sign them off and state they no longer present a risk. He would like to see the money going into Sarah’s Law being put into an extension of quality halfway house schemes and psychological treatment, rather than releasing people before they are ready.
In reality, Sarah’s Law is an admission of failure on the part of the legal system, not a triumph in child protection as the Home Office has suggested. At best, it’s a blunt and inconsistent tool. The Government’s claim that during its 12-month pilot, Sarah’s Law safeguarded 60 children is a wild interpretation of the facts. Reeking with the stench of propaganda, this figure has been touted proudly by the mainstream press. 
The Nexus Institute, a charity who work with victims of sexual abuse have seriously called into question the value of Sarah’s law, warning that the majority of child sex offenders have never been to court, let alone convicted. The NSPCC have expressed fears that the law will spark vigilante attacks, driving paedophiles underground and making them a greater threat. With regards to the national roll out of the scheme, they’ve urged caution.
One colossal fly in the ointment of Sarah’s Law is that it would have done nothing to save the girl who gave it her name. Sarah Payne was abducted on holiday by someone who lived 20 miles away. There is no chance her parents could have known of the threat presented by Roy Whiting. Her mother has insisted the law would have saved Sarah, although she is unable to explain how. 
This all begs the question; do the Government genuinely believe Sarah’s Law will work? They’ve played down the connection to Megan’s Law in the US, perhaps because thorough research has been unable to find any link between the law and greater child protection. Of course, the scheme can be defended if it keeps even one child safe. But as ‘Max’ has pointed out, there are other uses of Government money which are far more effective at safeguarding children.
In a political climate which panders more and more to tabloid-lead populist thinking, Sarah’s Law has been given to us as a placebo. The law has been developed in answer to our distorted fears about the paedophiles that “roam our streets” and does not reflect the reality of child sex abuse.
As Nexus remind us, the majority of offenders are members of the victim's family or well known and trusted family friends. Most offenders are also trusted members of the community. Sarah’s Law disguises this reality. Child sex abuse is, like many other inter-personal crimes an abuse of power over those who have none. It’s this unquestioned trust and power which keeps this crime hidden. Committed by those who would never be suspected, Sarah’s Law ignores the vast majority of victims.
The death of Sarah Payne is devastating. But in truth it was a freak incident that teaches us very little about the much wider phenomenon of child abuse and infanticide. It’s useless as a blueprint to apply when seeking better child protection measures. We support this law out of a collective unwillingness to accept that we live in a society where this could ever have happened.
But we cannot allow grief or rage to be the main driving forces behind legislation. And we should be wary of a law that names itself after a murdered child. This is emotive manipulation that strives to stifle debate. When we allow this sentimentalising of the law, something that works by detached objective judgment, we are on incredibly dangerous ground.


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