Thursday, 11 October 2012

Muddled opinions about keeping children from harm

As a society our views about safeguarding children from harm are very muddled - take some recent examples:

On the one hand there was an international hunt for 15 year old Megan Stammers when she disappeared to France with her teacher Jeremy Forrest. He now faces charges of abduction even though there is no suggestion that Megan was taken against her will and her parents have emphasised they do not believe she was in danger in Forrest's company. On the other hand in Rochdale are girls of a similar age to Megan coerced and sexually exploited by a gang of men, however neither police nor social workers took action because they were deemed to have made a 'lifestyle choice'.

In Machynlleth Wales, April Jones was abducted launching a massive hunt by concerned volunteers. Mark Bridger has been charged with her murder though her body has yet to be found. Every parent fears the loss of a child, for generations we have warned children not to talk to strangers but yesterday it emerged that Bridger is the uncle of April's half sisters, so she undoubtedly knew him, he was not a 'stranger'.

The NSPCC says on average every week in England and Wales one child is killed at the hands of someone else, the majority of deaths are babies under one year old. There is no central government register so the exact number is not known however estimates vary from 50 to 200 children a year. Whatever the actual number, very few get the publicity that April has had. [By comparison the Department of Transport keeps statistics about children involved in road accidents - 2,412 children (age 0 - 15) were killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2011.]

Children are more often abused and sometimes murdered at the hands of their parents, carers and other people who know them than they are by strangers, but again few hit the headlines. An extreme exception was Jade Philpott, 10, and brothers John, nine, Jack, seven, Jessie, six, Jayden, five, and 13-year-old Duwayne, who all perished when a blaze ripped through their home in Allenton, Derby, last May. The parents were eventually charged with arson and their murders having originally presented themselves to the police and media as distraught victims.

Currently TV soap EastEnders is running parallel stories about the care of two babies. Lexi is the daughter of teenage mother and young offender Lola who is under very close scrutiny by social workers. Viewers can see Lexi is loved and thriving, Lola has bonded with her and she has family help and support. This is contrasted with the story of baby Scarlett/Patricia whose mother well-off Janine has left in the care of her husband Michael Moon. Viewers can see this baby is rarely held or cuddled, Michael is depicted as cold towards her and frequently leaves her in the care of a variety of other characters for long periods at very short notice. We are left asking which baby should the authorities be more concerned about?

The truth about Jimmy Savile is emerging and with good reason people are asking why none of his predatory sexual interest in teenage girls came to light before? We should remember that it was not until 1987 and the Cleveland child sexual abuse scandal that the nature and scale of the sexual abuse of children came to public attention. Prior to that people might have been aware of 'perverts' in their communities, parents would advise their children to stay away from certain adults, school yard and street talk between children in the neighbourhood passed on knowledge about which adults to be wary of too. But talk about sex was largely taboo and 'sexual abuse' was not discussed. It is hardly surprising that teenage girls assaulted by men in the 60's 70's and 80's were reluctant to come forward - would their word be believed against that of a Star? Savile seems to have targeted girls at their most vulnerable, as patients in hospital or away from their parents, he really was a 'stranger' to them yet people may well have felt they 'knew' him because of his TV presence.

So what do I conclude from this brief, and highly selective survey?

  1. Children have rights. The UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which includes the right to be protected and also to be heard in their own right,  it should not depend on whether you have parents to stand up for you.
  2. The way child abuse is presented in the media skews both the extent and the reality. We end up with a  kaleidoscope of lurid stories instead of a measured analysis of the whole picture.
  3. Poor parenting occurs in families of all incomes, classes and social circumstances, same as good parenting.
  4. We should judge the quality of parenting from the point of view of the child's experience, not our prejudices about the parents.
  5. Some men (and women) are sexual predators of children and young people. They are extremely devious in pursuit of their goals. We must trust what children tell us about them.

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