Spreading the Guilt

Is it true that around one child in ten is subjected to some sort of abuse, as the Lancet reported today? Quite possibly. If you define "abuse" broadly enough, as this report appears to, then obviously large numbers will be caught by it. Many people have unhappy childhoods, are bullied by step-parents, touched up, disciplined with unreasonable severity or belittled by adults in ways that results in low self-esteem. In some cases the abuse continues well into adulthood, or even middle age. And it is reproduced down the generations. "Man hands on misery to man" warned that arch misanthrope Philip Larkin in his most famous poem "It deepens as the coastal shelf".

The Lancet's findings come from several developed countries, and paints what the Guardian's Sarah Boseley predictably described as a "grim picture" of vast numbers of abused children suffering in silence, unhelped by authorities who are reluctant to intervene. The case of Baby P(eter) has obviously put child protection high up the political agenda, and these new figures are a gift to the "something must be done" brigade. But the majority of "abused" children described by the Lancet are not Baby Ps. Their lives are not threatened, and for many of them even a miserable home-life must be preferable to the vagaries of the "care" system.

The report's authors, who include Ruth Gilbert of UCL's Institute of Child Health, would like to see more intervention by authorities: more children put on "at risk" registers, more taken into care. So, needless to say, would Yvonne Roberts of the Guardian, who has this to say:

Such is the desire of grown-ups to hold on to their fairy stories about happy families and evil invasive paediatricians and social workers, they have fatally weakened a child's first line of defence. A double tragedy at a time when another watchful eye (sometimes too an alternative source of abuse), the extended family, is dissolving away – and women, always present in the neighbourhood, are more likely to be in paid work. The health visitor, the canary in the cage, often the first to grasp that a baby may be in trouble, is also almost a dying breed – another watchperson lost.

...How as a nation have we become so unhappy, drowning in drink and drugs, and bullying the most defenceless? In the UK in the 21st century, in parts of the country, the art of family life has been lost. Children are bringing themselves up, just as surely as they were in Dickensian England.

Those sentiments might almost have come from Peter Hitchens, which is ironic. The difference, of course, lies in the remedies. Hitchens thinks the solution lies in marriage and religion, Roberts wants more power for social workers:

Put children before family privacy: end a parent's right to smack. Stop hounding paediatricians who uncover unwanted truths; mothers can and do intentionally harm their young; get rid of much of the health and safety regulations that impede social workers' ability to use the tools that matter most – instinct, intuition. Stop sacking individual social workers, pay more, fill vacancies and reduce case loads so social workers can develop relationships with clients that make a difference.

Who would those hounded paediatricians be, I wonder? Roy Meadows, who sent several innocent mothers to jail and Sally Clark to an early grave? Marietta Higgs, who in the early nineties discovered that most babies in Cleveland were being buggered.

I haven't seen the details of the report, but some of its assumptions seem rather strange. For a start, it defines as a child anyone under 18, which must mean that many of the 5-10% of girls who have suffered "penetrative" sexual abuse are reporting sexual experiences they later regretted. Emotional abuse includes "being persistently made to feel useless or worthless" - which for a strong-willed child might serve as a spur to effort and success. Physical abuse includes being hit, even once, "with an implement". The report defines neglect - suffered by around 15% - as "the failure of their parents or carers to meet the child's basic emotional or physical needs or ensure their safety", which in some cases could simply mean they worked long hours.

The Lancet's editor Richard Horton said the findings, which had taken a year to reach publication, had "huge significance for considering an appropriate and measured response to the findings around Baby P". Actually, they have no bearing on Baby Peter's case, which was an extreme one, except to deflect attention from the real lessons of that tragedy which involved a repeated and culpable failure on the part of individuals to detect abuse.

If anything, this report will give ammunition to those who want to use Baby Peter to justify further and probably counterproductive intrusions into normal family life. Baby Peter was not the "tip of the iceberg", any more than was Josef Fritzl; it is both offensive and dangerous to use his death as an example typical of anything. Dangerous, because resources are not unlimited: if they are spread more thinly, for example by setting up monitoring systems in which huge numbers of children are considered "at risk", then the Baby Peters of the future are more, not less, likely to suffer. The best use of intervention is in the small number of extreme cases; blanket "safeguarding" procedures threaten to turn all children into potential victims, all parents into suspected abusers, and normal family life into a nightmare of paranoia. Indeed, it may well have been the demands placed on social workers excessive bureaucracy - and too many cases - that enabled him to slip through the net.

Horton added: "What this report does emphasise is the extent of the risk factors and consequences of child maltreatment, which are of such complexity that any reflex attempt to apportion blame or think there is a simple solution to this issue is to completely misrepresent the extent and depth of the problem."

In fact, the report can do no such thing, because it comes, so far as I can establish, with no historical background or social context. Is the situation the same as it has always been, deteriorating, or improving? My guess would be the latter. There is far more information about good parenting, far more professional concern and far less normalisation of low-level abuse. What is defined as abuse changes over time. Corporal punishment in schools used to be commonplace: it was rare to find a child who hadn't been strapped or caned. Few would wish to go back to those days (Peter Hitchens, perhaps) but it would be absurd to suggest that all children who grew up forty or fifty years ago were "abused". Or if they were, the majority seem to have recovered remarkably well.

If, as the report suggests, abuse is widespread in all developed countries, how much more widespread must it be in the third world, where resources are limited and traditional parenting styles persist? But then families in poorer countries will usually be too concerned with day-to-day survival to worry about the politics of parenting. That is an indulgence of rich societies. Which means, ironically, that public concern - and alarmist reports - about widespread child abuse is probably as sign that, in most cases, there's not too much to worry about.


WeepingCross said…
Shock horror, a report written by doctors and social workers argues for more power and shamanic status for doctors and social workers!
Anonymous said…
"get rid of much of the health and safety regulations that impede social workers' ability to use the tools that matter most – instinct, intuition"

Why bother with intelligence and experience?


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