Sensational stories about child molesters cause unnecessary alarm

among parents, reports Sarah Nelson

THE collapse of a high-profile ''bogus health visitor'' case in

Lothian holds salutary, embarrassing lessons -- especially for some

media and ''expert'' professional pundits.

Police have said, tersely, that ''all inquiries and investigations are

at an end'' in the case of Lynne Stewart, who claimed a woman had tried

to snatch her baby Erin from the doorstep.

They have sent a report to the procurator fiscal about wasting police

time, though the mother denies having invented the whole story. The

alarmist hype that surrounded the case, with photofit pictures of the

abductor flashed nationwide, is an extreme example of the wild, unlikely

speculation surrounding the whole ''bogus social worker'' phenomenon.

One newspaper had even brought Mrs Stewart together with another

mother, whose children were briefly abducted then returned safely.

This was for a sensational article which inflamed parents' anxieties

across Scotland. It was full of hysterical language about evil perverts,

warped monsters and ''Scotland's most twisted couple''.

One criminologist, Bill Thompson, claims similarities between the

bogus callers -- who have rarely, if ever, harmed a child -- and ''the

behaviour pattern of a serial killer, who roams the country preying on


Other sensational stories have speculated about paedophile rings,

despite not a shred of evidence that such rings are behind bogus visits

anywhere. But the stories persist because they make good, racy, prurient

copy. Careful, balanced information, rooted in actual knowledge of child

abuse, does not.

Some highly dangerous strangers do snatch children (almost always

outside the home) to molest or even kill them. But the sad truth is

child abusers have numerous easier chances to prey on victims, as

trusted relatives, baby-sitters or carers in many professions.

Sadly, they have been far more successful than any ''bogus social

worker''. The real problem lies in persuading public and professions to

accept and guard against the daily risk from trusted adults.

The public have been asked to swallow ludicrous images -- even by

''experts'' who should know better. Smart, middle-aged, blue-rinsed

matrons roaming housing estates for the chance of molesting a toddler;

mixed-sex paedophile couples going about their evil work in public;

people trying to snatch children to ''groom'' them for paedophile


Psychologists have hedged their bets to absurd degrees. The fictional

''Lothian Snatcher'', one said recently, seemed both desperate and cool,

naive and sophisticated.

Again, mothers and children in Strathclyde have been named and

photographed with confidential details given of social work involvement

with their families. The social work department didn't give this

information to newspapers: who did, and will the publicity place already

vulnerable people at more risk?

Child protection staff find it especially galling when they read

ignorant, sensational media speculation, because some reports have

hordes of sex perverts roaming doorsteps one day then next day the

social workers are denounced for grossly exaggerating the prevalence of

child sexual abuse.

Little wonder child protection workers often feel totally confused at

how journalists -- and some professional pundits -- have failed to work

out any logical thoughts about children at risk or done any intelligent


Since no bogus social worker has yet been caught, and we know almost

nothing of their motives, fanciful public speculation seems pointless.

It is the job of the police and other investigators to pursue carefully

any clues.