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“How safe are our children?”

The NSPCC report on child abuse and neglect.

 The report can be found here

http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/research/findings/howsafe/how-safe-2013-report_wdf95435.pdf

 and is interesting and well worth a read. It is quite stat heavy, but there are decent graphs which make the points well, and they set out how the stats were arrived at. (One of their core ones, I have an issue with, but will deal with that a bit later on)

The latter bits of the report set out the risk indicators for children, nearly all of which are not likely to come to a shock to anyone working within the family justice system.

You are more likely, as a child, to be physically abused or neglected if these factors are present in your family :-

Domestic violence, substance misuse, parents with mental health problems, parents with learning difficulties, children with physical or mental impairments, children from certain ethnic or minority backgrounds,  parents who suffered abuse themselves as a child, and poverty.

 The poverty one is interesting, because it is the elephant in the room at the moment. Is part of our child protection system, as might be argued by John Hemming and perhaps Dr Dale, a punitive way of dealing with the poorest members of our society (and perhaps even a redistribution of children from those who have them, to those with greater means and income who would adopt them?)

 Also of course, from everything we know about the political climate of the country at present, poverty is only going to get worse over the next few years (unless you were on the Board of HBOS or are a stockholder in Vodafone, Starbucks, Google et al)

 Here’s what the report says about poverty as a risk factor [underlining is mine, as I think this is a VITAL point]

 Children living with poverty, debt and financial pressures

Why is this a risk factor?

Although there is no evidence to show that poverty causes child maltreatment, poverty and child maltreatment share many similar risk factors. Numerous explanations try to explain the relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect. The impact of the stress associated with poverty and social deprivation on parenting is the most common explanation.

Researchers have found that parents with a low income are four times more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with higher incomes. Stress levels of parents living in poorer neighbourhoods have been shown to be high. One study identified a “strong relationship between parents’ levels of stress and greater use of physical discipline”. Another associated being in a lower socio-economic group with a more significant level of physical discipline and abuse.

An analysis of women’s childhood experiences of abuse and neglect found evidence that women from poorer childhood homes were twice as likely to have suffered from abuse or neglect and three times as likely to have suffered from more than one form of abuse than those from more well-off childhood homes. Emerging findings from research in England highlight the impact of poor and inadequate housing on families and poor housing is a common characteristic of families in poverty. The unsafe environment and the impact of parental stress have been found to be factors in some SCRs and where children are subject to child protection plans.

 

This does not mean that parents who are poor will abuse or neglect their children. The relationship has been described as “circular and interdependent as opposed to linear and causal”.

 

What we know about prevalence

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK85 was around 2.5 million in 2012, rising to about 2.9 million in 2015.86

 

 Being poor doesn’t mean that you will neglect your children, but being poor of course means that you are much more likely to have to make difficult choices about budgeting and poor choices have a much more detrimental effect.  (If you are choosing between whether to spend £80 or £110 one week on food shopping for the next week, choosing the latter one week doesn’t massively affect your family, but if you are choosing between whether to spend £15 or £25 on shopping that week, and perhaps to spend the extra £10 means not having the heating on, those choices do make a proportionately greater difference to the wellbeing of the family.

 There is an interesting tack in the main body of the report. The NSPCC calculate that for every child known to the authorities to be suffering from abuse or neglect, there are another 8 who are not known.   [This is the statistic I am most cautious about, since it is drawn from an extrapolation of their 2011 study that showed children self-reported abuse or neglect  (6% of over 11s, and 2.5% of under 11s) and applied that to the population at large. For me, I would need the 2011 study to be much larger and more robust before you could start extrapolating it to the population at large – for example, if you are asking a 14 year old whether they have been seriously mistreated by their parents in the last year, that 14 year old’s idea of serious mistreatment might be very different to society’s idea of it. There might well be days when almost any 14 year old would say that his parents were mistreating him]

 But, setting aside my quibble about the number of children who are the bottom part of that iceberg, under the surface and unknown to professionals, the NSPCC say this

 The gap is unlikely to close

Could services ever reach all maltreated children? Even if this were desirable (and few would consider this level of state intrusion into family life appropriate) it is very unlikely in the current context. If children’s social services were to become aware of just one quarter of those children who were maltreated (but not currently known to them), we estimate the number of children subject to child protection plans or on registers in the UK would triple. The resources required for this would be significant: an estimated additional £360 million to £490 million in public spending. In today’s fiscal climate this kind of investment is unlikely; to close the gap altogether is highly improbable. Nor is this the most effective approach. While it is vital to support children and adults in speaking up about abuse, in order to stop abuse in its tracks, this will never be enough to prevent children from being harmed in the first place.

 

 

This seems to be a bold, if pragmatic, thing to say about child abuse. Particularly for an organisation has been campaigning for the last few years on the basis of ending child abuse.  Cruelty to children must end, FULL STOP (remember?)

They are now accepting that society simply can’t end it or stop it. There will always be child abuse and neglect.  And as they point out, even if you raised detection levels to a much higher point, that would have a huge and detrimental impact on freedom and privacy and family life, and the resourcing of the services would be utterly unmanageable for our society to fund.

 So, are the NSPCC throwing in the towel?  Unsurprisingly, not. What they instead posit is moving towards the very early period of child abuse and neglect and nipping that in the bud before it escalates into more serious problems.

 We need a different approach to child protection

 

Which is why a different approach to child protection is needed, one that does more to prevent abuse “upstream” rather than intervening to stop it once it has already happened. Most public spending goes towards picking up the pieces rather than into “upstream” prevention. The National Audit Office estimates that only 6 per cent of public expenditure is focused on stopping problems from emerging in the first place.

 

While intervening to address abuse once it is known will always be a moral and legal imperative, child abuse and neglect will never be substantially reduced unless we become smarter at preventing it from happening at all.

 

Understanding the circumstances in which children are at increased risk is essential for prevention. Research points to the personal characteristics, family circumstances and environments that place children at greater risk of abuse and neglect. In Part 3, we set out the available evidence on this, highlighting nine key risk factors. There is no direct causality between these factors and abuse; they are not predictive of maltreatment. But by recognising that children living in such circumstances are at heightened risk, greater support could be directed towards families to reduce the chances of abuse and neglect from occurring at all. While this support comes at a price, it is ultimately more cost-effective to prevent abuse from occurring than to meet the many costs that fall across society because of the damage caused to children who were abused or neglected in their childhood.

 

Wider society also has an important role to play. Abusive behaviour cannot be stamped out by the state alone; individuals, families and communities must also be responsible for the change. Most adults think parents, families, friends and neighbours have a responsibility to prevent child abuse – and that greater responsibility lies with these groups than with government.

 

So while government can do much to influence the conditions in which children live and while professionals play an important role in intervening to protect children and helping those who are at risk of abuse, wider society has a responsibility too. However, all too often people frame this responsibility in terms of being willing to act if worried about a child, rather than being willing to address faults in their own or others’ behaviour. Perhaps it is time to reassert our responsibilities to children as citizens.

 

 

I can’t say I’m sure how the NSPCC vision here gets translated into action, but I think it is a legitimate and interesting debate to have as a society.  I thought the report as a whole (although I don’t agree with every aspect) was a challenging and thought-provoking document.

 There are some very mind-boggling figures in it

 There were a total of 21,493 sexual offences against children recorded by police in the UK in 2011/12.*

 There were 4,991 rapes of children recorded by police in England and Wales in 2011/12.

 There were 7,812 cruelty and neglect offences recorded by police in the UK in 2011/12.