Keeping children safe – what can business do to help?

No-one should want to spend a long time on the topic of child abuse.  So I am going to get through this as quickly as possible: talking about how businesses can help stop child abuse. I will cover some quick wins, some  structural solutions in specific sectors, and then look at the big challenge –  how to create a culture that prevents child abuse before it happens.

Picture of dolls used in anti-exploitation game.
Anti-exploitation campaign in the tourism industry in Nicaragua: The dollies’ badge says ‘No excuses! We are children!’

There are corporate leaders in this area such as Visa Europe or the anti-exploitation campaign I saw at every tourist spot across Nicaragua (pictured) – so this is definitely a subject where business can make a difference.  I’ve kicked off the Q and A here, but please join in and share your ideas for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. NSPCC analysis indicates that one in five children in the UK have experienced abuse.  As a society, do we want to live with that?

Q: This is awful stuff for sure, but it doesn’t seem like the job of business?  Shouldn’t someone else be responsible for this, like the government, or someone like the UN?

A:  There was a grim news report last week that the UN had sacked a whistleblower who leaked the allegations that French peacekeepers had abused children in CAR. It’s not the first time that such abuse will have taken place and won’t be the last but the UN should be throwing their resources at better safeguarding, not at sacking the whistleblower.

The UK government appears to be unable to resolve the ever-growing allegations that people with power in the British establishment abused children in systematically organised rings. It appears that politicians who abused children were aided by the police turning a blind eye. Important files were ‘lost’. The UK government failed for too long to find someone to head their inquiry into child abuse who was not related to or friends with some of the principal participants in the inquiry.    The high-ranking political and legal elite of the establishment should be drawn from a nation of 60 million but you’d be forgiven for thinking they all come from one remote village, given the inter-relationships.

Some charities are doing a good job – although many of them could be more transparent about where things go wrong, and what their limitations are.  But charities are not enough on their own to bring about a cultural shift.  Businesses are everywhere, aren’t they?  Why shouldn’t they have a go at fixing a problem that no-one can fix alone?

Q.  I don’t know, this seems like cultural stuff, not business.  Can’t we leave this to the Church?  

A:  Have you been living under a rock for the last ten years?

Q:  Still, it’s pretty sensitive stuff right?  You don’t want to just wade in feet first or you could make things a whole lot worse.

A:  Acutally, I agree with that in some cases.  But then there are other times that you just have to get on and do it. There are lots of charities who can offer good advice and there are lots of things that companies could do straight away that are low risk, cheap and simple.

Many firms have a code of conduct or statement of values. Inserting some language in there about safeguarding children and other vulnerable members of our community would start to send a signal.  Firms could include clauses in contracts specifying that if a staff member was found guilty of child abuse their contract would instantly be terminated. They could state that employees who whistleblow will be supported. They would do it for fraud, or for dangerous work on a construction site. If they want to, they can do it for child abuse. It would be easier if it was part of a broad campaign to help everyone understand why it was happening now, but anyone could do this any time they want to.  It could be an opportunity for staff engagement – everyone who has seen the news in the last few years will know this is a problem and might appreciate their firm taking a positive stance on it.

In company comms and media, firms can safeguard children by not providing identifying information.  I read a Financial Times article which showed photos of children, gave their full names and the name and location of their nursery.  Do the reverse of that.  There are established guidelines on what not to do with information about children.

Some of the more complex things really make sense because brands’ products and services may be used by people who want to exploit children, and it makes sense for them to reduce that risk. I remember working with some smart people from Visa Europe  on an education project and hearing about the work they were doing with CEOP to prevent Visa cards being used to purchase material which exploits children. Other financial services could look at how they could do similar things. Internet services such as Twitter have held up their hands to say they have no powers to stop trolls from bullying. If they were a bit more switched on about it, they could find structural things to do, helping build a culture where abuse is spotted, reported and resolved. Privacy issues should be thought about too but children’s right to be safe should take priority. Adults should be able to work stuff like this out so that children can be safe.

Tourism is an industry which has a particular role in helping to end child abuse:  Some companies are going to be trying harder than others. When you book a holiday this year, tweet or send an email to the company you booked through asking them to help end child abuse.  I just tweeted AirBnB to ask them what their policy is.  They seem like a thoughtful kind of company and I’m hopeful they’ll reply.  I will update this blog if they do.

Thinking about holidays made me think about transport.  A taxi company was linked to one of the huge child abuse scandals in the UK of the last few years.  Some taxi companies prize safety, others do not.  Taxi firms that screen their employees could make that part of their sales pitch.  Of course those who do not have employees (hello Uber) are probably not in a position to do that.   See whether your favourite taxi firm takes any steps to monitor the safety of its passengers and other people in their community.

Safeguarding children in other ways, eg from injury, may provide some quicker wins and kickstart a culture of child and vulnerable adult safeguarding. I expect construction companies have had to think about how to make their sites more child-safe. If everyone in the country spent 30 minutes a year thinking about whether there was one thing we could do at work to make children safer then we might be surprised at what we can achieve.

For whatever reason, we – in the UK and globally – have not yet built a culture that safeguards children. Those who wish to harm children are hopefully a tiny minority, but as the UK and UN examples show, their actions are enabled by those people who are either incurious and unconcerned, or perhaps worried that those with power will harm them should they try to protect the vulnerable. In the case of the UN, not only did it fail to protect the vulnerable, it failed to protect a whistleblower. The case shows that although it should be unthinkable for someone to lose their job for speaking out for children, it is entirely possible. And that’s the UN, not a rogue minicab operator.

Q:  Some of these things sound like they could help.  Still, it’s government and charities, not businesses, who are responsible for how people behave.  Businesses can’t be held accountable for the fact that some people are just plain bad. 

A:  Except that some businesses make profits from the criminal justice system, and I would argue that they have a social responsibility to reduce offending – and it would also improve their reputation if society believes that such companies are not out to make a profit from human misery.

I’m talking about the operators of private prisons.  This is an unlikely partnership for me to suggest as I believe in restorative justice, and reports such as those from the Howard League do not paint a rosy picture of private prison providers.  However, it might be possible for such a private prison provider to innovate in its appproaches and find ways to prevent offenders from reoffending – or from starting to offend.  It seems unlikely and I suspect they would try to pass off the delivery and reputational risks to the not-for-profit sector.  The Quakers used to run a programme called ‘Circles of Monitoring and Support’ where they did what they said they would – monitored sex offenders but also supported them to overcome their urges to offend.  If this sounds like being soft on offenders, that’s not the point.  You may not personally believe that people can reform, but if you think it might help a child being lost, then think about whether you would support a prison provider to run such a programme.  We are always hearing about how the private sector takes risks and innovates – so go ahead, innovate and save children.  I  leave the last words to Coral and Paul Jones, who lost their daughter April when she was five years old, as reported in the Guardian on 9th April:

“Paul Jones said: “If you are thinking that way and you haven’t committed any crime, if you call out for help, that can only be a good thing.

“If you don’t call out for help you might eventually turn into a Mark Bridger yourself. Someone calling out for help deserves a chance. If you do carry on and you become a paedophile, the law should be thrown hard at you.”

Coral Jones said she hoped the book could at least “save one child, one family”. She added: “If someone says to the doctor: ‘I have these feelings, can I have help?’, it would be better to try to help them before they ruin someone else’s family.”


One thought on “Keeping children safe – what can business do to help?”

  1. Child abuse is indeed a pressing societal problem and often we are not aware that it exists around us (or we tend to ignore that it exists). In Central Asia where I am from, there tends to be a strong correlation between child abuse and poverty. Child abuse takes many forms, not just physically abusing children, but preventing them from reaching their full potential.

    Among poorer parts of the population, children are seen as a source of income. Sons work with the father on the field and girls work at home. The excuse given is that without it families cannot survive. This is shortsighted view and a vicious circle for both families and children. When children work at home or on the land they have no access to education, job prospects, social promotion, access to proper sanitation and healthcare and a good standard of living. When these children grow up and start their own families they will do exactly the same because they have never explored or seen a better alternative.

    In cities there is often a role for business not to tolerate this, but in rural areas, the government and civil society needs to educate parents that there is a way out of this vicious circle.

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