Too much safeguarding

There is an awful familiarity to the guilty verdicts given to 20 men in Huddersfield in the north of England for raping and abusing girls. These ‘grooming gang’ offences committed between 2004 and 2011, by men operating in the nighttime economy of taxi ranks and fast-food takeaways, are just the latest in a series of similar horrendous accounts of what has been happening on the streets of Rotherham, Newcastle, Telford and Oxford, among other places.

As Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, put it, ‘No one, local authority leadership, police, many of the people that should have been taking this more seriously earlier, did’. And yet this is in stark contrast with what is going on when it comes to ‘safeguarding’ children from other supposed threats, or from their own families.

‘We are failing our children if we don’t put them at the heart of government spending’, says Anna Feuchtwang, chair of End Child Poverty, in an open letter to Theresa May and Philip Hammond in the run-up to next week’s Conservative government budget. The alliance of a hundred-plus organisations concerned with the lack of what Feuchtwang describes as ‘concrete financial commitment to the welfare of children’ was echoing the Children’s Commissioner’s warnings about the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of local authorities failing to meet their statutory duties to vulnerable children.

But it is not as if money is not being spent on far-reaching interventions into children’s and families’ lives. The number of children referred to social care every year has increased by 100,000 in a decade. The numbers of care orders granted to local authorities to remove children from their families has doubled. Child-protection inquiries have more than doubled. It is just that at the same time as all this has happened, central-government funding has been cut quite drastically, putting children’s services in crisis. The LGA says there will be a £2 billion funding gap in 2020; £3 billion by 2025.

This is a crisis of our own making. There is relentless ‘awareness-raising’ about the alleged multiple and worsening threats to children’s wellbeing; and yet the small minority of children and adolescents with serious problems, such as those who are self-harming or suffering from serious eating disorders, are waiting for months on end to be seen because services don’t have the resources to cope with the extra demand.

Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo’s, has described it as a ‘perfect storm’. But he blows something of a gale himself by talking up all the risks he thinks young people face. He talks of cyber-bullying and gaming addiction alongside online grooming, as if some sort of continuum exists between playground unpleasantness, Playstation and predatory paedophiles. These hazards or threats ‘apply to everyone’, claims Khan.

This is the problem with child protection today. In an effort to safeguard ‘every child’ from every danger, the particular child facing particular risks no longer matters as much. The response of services is disproportionate – intervening far too much or hardly at all. There is an overreliance on top-down procedure rather than trusting people on the ground – whether it be the youth workers who were so important in uncovering what was going on in Rotherham, or people in their communities just keeping an eye out for anything untoward.

In a parliamentary debate on the recent Care Crisis Review, Lucy Allan MP said, ‘If we believe that families do a better job than the state, we must work with families to support them, not just judge them and find them wanting’. She’s right. The state shouldn’t be needlessly taking kids away from their parents. But who still believes that families do a better job than the state does? At a time when parents in general aren’t trusted to bring up their children without expert advice, what prospect is there of the authorities working in good faith with parents who are struggling, neglectful or even abusive?

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham conceded that cases of child sexual exploitation are a ‘tiny proportion of referrals and contacts to children’s social care, but they constitute a very significant proportion of the children at risk of serious injury and harm’. But between 1997 and 2013, the at least 1,400 girls estimated to have been sexually exploited by grooming gangs in the town were not protected. And yet, over that period, the inquiry report tells us: ‘Inspections frequently commend[ed] the council for its commitment to safeguarding young people.’

If we are to prevent another Rotherham, Banbury, Halifax, Rochdale or Huddersfield, we need to challenge the constant top-down panicking and obsession with process, re-focus child protection on the avoidance of significant identifiable harm, and re-establish trust in those best placed to look out for children in their communities.

 First published in spiked

Why fearmongering about child abuse helps no one

The NSPCC has claimed that child sexual abuse referrals have risen by nearly a third over a year.

In 2016-2017, the charity made an average of 90 referrals a week to the police and social services, as a consequence of 4,677 calls made by members of the public to the charity’s phone service, Childline. This was up from 3,578 the previous year.

The NSPCC’s dramatic announcement came after the Local Government Association (LGA) reported that around 500 child-protection inquiries have been started every day across England and Wales in recent years. In 2016 there were 172,290 inquiries, rising to 185,450 in 2017. The LGA warned of a ‘tipping point’, as local authorities struggle to cope with increasing demand while funding is cut. As a result of all of this, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) has also complained of a ‘strain upon officers’.

However, when we look at actual intervention, the picture is somewhat different. The number of children subject to intervention by the authorities through a Child Protection Plan (CPP) has also been rising. Official figures from local authorities, provided by the NSPCC, show that CPPs have risen from 42,850 in 2012 to 50,310 in 2016. But, crucially, only five per cent of cases in 2012 related to instances of sexual abuse, falling to 4.8 per cent of cases in 2016. Neglect and emotional abuse were by far the most common categories of abuse dealt with by CPPs.

This disparity, between the large increase in referrals made by the NSPCC and a modest increase in suspected sexual abuse, is striking. Despite the increasing volume of referrals made by the NSPCC, there is no evidence to suggest that a third more children are being sexually abused. What’s more, the NSPCC also states that much of the abuse it deals with happens online. Of course, online child sexual abuse is serious and should be dealt with – but it is not the same as physical sexual abuse.

Nevertheless, the upward trend in NSPCC referrals is still taken as evidence that we’re in the midst of an epidemic of child abuse. The damage done to families who are unfairly treated with suspicion is regarded as a price worth paying in the pursuit of protecting children. But this relentless obsession with child sexual abuse is having a corrosive effect on families and communities. Instead of protecting children, the NSPCC is fuelling a moral panic which will divert resources away from tackling the rare, but serious, cases of child abuse that do occur.

First published in spiked

Who’d be a football coach now?

First published in sp!ked

It is nearly a month since former professional footballer Andy Woodward told the Guardian he was sexually abused as a boy by Barry Bennell, a former talent spotter and youth coach who spent most of his career at Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City. Woodward’s disclosure was the cue for other alleged victims to come forward and make allegations of sexual abuse, complete with suggestions of cover-ups, against Bennell and others (including former employees of Southampton, Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers). Now, with the child abuse scandal rolling through club after club – at the last count, over 20 police forces were investigating allegations at 98 clubs, and hundreds of calls have been logged by the NSPCC – questions need to be answered. How widespread is abuse in football? And is the current focus likely to stop would-be coaches from entering youth football?

Yet some have already made up their minds. Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, says the scandal ‘reveals the worrying extent of abuse that had been going on in the sport’. According to Reuters, it is already ‘one of the worst paedophile scandals Britain has ever known’.

Surely a bit if perspective would be wise here. Not least because the hysteria about abuse in football is not conducive to establishing the facts. As it stands, we don’t know whether sexual abuse in football is on the same scale as the systematic abuse of young girls supposedly in the care of their local authorities, and for which the men responsible were convicted. We don’t know if it’s on the same scale as the Savile scandal, and the array of follow-on allegations, some true, many false, made against assorted public figures. We don’t know, because no one seems that bothered about establishing the facts before drawing hyperbolic conclusions.

The amnesia here is striking. Have those currently calling this ‘one of the worst paedophile scandals Britain has ever known’ forgotten about the collapse of Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police’s completely groundless inquiry into the alleged sexual abuse and murder of children at the hands of senior politicians, army figures and spooks? Are they simply ignoring the folly of the now seemingly discredited Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which, with its impossibly broad remit, has proven nigh-on impossible to conduct? Too often, child-abuse hysteria has led to grave mistakes being made, from false accusations to ineffective suspicion-spreading inquiries.

Whatever the child-protection lobby might say, the truth is that child sexual abuse is extraordinarily rare. Most of what is recorded as suspected abuse is actually neglect, and few cases of abuse are suspected to be of a sexual nature. The official figures from the Department for Education show that in 2015/16, 50,310 children were subject to a child-protection plan, which means social-care professionals agreed that these children were suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Of these 50,310, 46 per cent were recorded as possibly subject to neglect and 35 per cent to emotional abuse. The figure for suspected sexual abuse is not even cited because it is so small – tentative estimates suggest just six per cent of all ‘child in need’ assessments involve suspected sexual abuse.

The very scale of the national game, with 3.35million children aged five to 15 playing football in England, means that the child-abuse panic in football has far-reaching consequences. Yes, of course, one child abused is one too many. But one child denied the opportunity to play football at the weekend because their parents are scared that the local coach might abuse them is also one child too many.

That is the problem with the evidence-lite claims now being made about football. It is a panic that will eat away at people’s trust in coaches and clubs – and will ultimately further undermine children’s trust in adults. Instead of recklessly joining in the hysteria, the authorities owe it to young footballers not to overreact to allegations of awful but thankfully rare abuse. A measured response will ensure that children are able to enjoy their childhoods unhindered by very adult obsessions and suspicions.

In the past, those institutions and clubs now being accused of standing by while the abuse was carried out might have attempted a cover-up. Now they tend to the opposite, and open themselves up, issuing mea culpas and launching investigations and inquiries. So Martin Glenn, chief executive of the Football Association, wasted no time in announcing an immediate internal review committed to ‘openness and honesty and everyone exposing what has happened’. Such moves are meant to reassure people, but they actually succeed in eroding the longstanding trust football clubs have built up with local communities. It is bad enough when the BBC or parliament embrace child-abuse hysteria; but football is part of families’ everyday (or at least weekend) lives, bringing together parents in a way that doesn’t happen all that often anymore.

Introducing kids to local football clubs means placing them in the care of strangers, adults who will hopefully not only develop children’s football skills, but perhaps develop their character, too. There are no procedures or checks that can ever guarantee children are absolutely safe. But the minuscule risk that they might be abused should not be allowed to poison the adult-child relationships on which youth football is based. By actively undermining parents’ trust in football clubs and the people who work or volunteer for them, those who claim to be concerned about children’s welfare are actually ensuring that children will be worse off in the long run.

The abuse-in-football panic, as with the other child-abuse scandals of recent times, won’t help prevent rare and distressing cases of actual child abuse. But it will lead to the growth of yet more suspicion in our already atomised and anxious society.


‘Facts abused by hysterical hacks’ shocker

childandadultOver the past week, with a short-lived foster care controversy and the return of the Leveson Inquiry to the headlines, we’ve had a welcome breather from child abuse hysteria. Don’t fret. It hasn’t gone far. Just as the allegations featured in that Newsnight documentary followed on seamlessly from the sordid Savile affair, there will be more to come. Part of the trouble with this sort of thing is that nobody seems to stop long enough to ask any questions.

As was evident from the feeding frenzy of uninformed commentators circling around the unreliable (and as it turned out unfounded) allegations involving a former Tory minister and a north Wales children’s home. Far from seeking to calm things down – until the studiously bland and otherwise inoffensive Phillip Schofield waded in with his list, that is – the government found itself caught up in this very elite paedophile panic. As The Guardian said at the time, nobody quite seemed to know why a review of the original Waterhouse inquiry into alleged abuse in the 1970s and 80s was even necessary:

 Up to five different inquiries are under way, or imminent, looking into various aspects of child abuse. But ministers feel they must be seen to be taking the allegations seriously, especially since the government has condemned the BBC over the Jimmy Savile allegations.

Child abuse hysterics have fuelled the speculation, demanded a bigger Leveson-like Inquiry (please no!) and insisted on the necessity of a dedicated national anti-paedophile team. As if they haven’t done enough damage already. Suzanne Moore like the professionally paranoid Tom Watson MP – for whom apparently ‘decorous caution is the friend of the paedophile’ – has claimed that she too is party to ‘dark and disturbing information’ emanating from alleged victims. (She doesn’t say ‘alleged’ by the way. They must be believed.) That ‘[s]ome of them are confused about whether they really have been abused’ doesn’t seem to make any difference. But this is no witch hunt. Oh no. That would be distastefully tabloid. Moore, like all child abuse hysterics,  just wants to ‘bring it back to the victims’.

But those hiding behind the ‘victims’ deserve to be exposed as much as their alleged victimisers. Owen Jones, in perhaps the most hysterical piece of all, argues that those defending the minister (wrongly accused of being a paedophile remember) are ‘undermining victims’. So when former minister David Mellor came to the defence of his former colleague there was outrage. Conservative MP Tim Loughton and others blamed him for discouraging other victims from coming forward. Mellor is not everybody’s cup of tea, granted, and calling the mistaken accuser a ‘weirdo’ was ill-advised. But surely it is the irresponsible rumour-mongers like Moore, Watson and Jones – not Mellor – that we should be getting angry at?

Abusing Trust With Dodgy Child Abuse Statistics

First published in Huffington Post

Can everyone please calm down about child abuse?‘ pleaded Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, in one of the few sane and sober commentaries I’d read on the subject. If only those foolish enough to spread suspicion and rumour on the back of the perverse dynamics of the Savile hysteria had heeded these wise words.

Fox wrote the piece following an appearance on Newsnight that, she said, prompted a “minor Twitchunt”. Ironically enough sounding not disimilar to that which was to nearly sink said BBC flagship only days later as it embarked on its own rumour-mongering tarted up as investigative journalism.

In a misguided effort to undo the criticisms of what, in retrospect, might be regarded as an admirably cautious editorial decision not to run the Savile documentary; it took the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ approach instead. And in so doing it indulged in the kind of thing that supposedly respectable media organisations have, post-Leveson, been accusing the gutter press of.

As Fox had warned against they opted “to treat rumour as fact”. Not unlike those other investigations not worthy of the name: notorious social services departments pursued imagined and (as it turned out) imaginary episodes of child abuse in the 1980s. Children were taken from their families on the grounds of scarily-wacky social work theories about Satanic Abuse or, as Fox puts it, because of the ridiculous conviction that ‘all victims must be believed’.

Having written my own piece for The Huffington Post UK disputing the much-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 children are abused, this social work favourite was cited in response. We don’t believe your statistics I was told. They ‘minimise’ abuse. Children don’t lie, apparently. And if they do lie, according to the bizarre and twisted logic of abuse hysteria, its because they are hiding something. Probably abuse.

That these sorts of ideas ‘inform’ the decision making of a profession whose reputation rises and falls on the perceived wisdom of its interventions into children’s and families lives is scandalous. Or at least it would be if we weren’t so obsessed with (actually rare) child abuse. As I explained in my blog, only 0.4% of children are even deemed to be at risk of any kind of abuse – mostly neglect and emotional abuse, and a few cases of physical abuse.

This is in contrast with the exaggerated claims of rampant abuse being made in the context of a controversy about alleged incidences of sexual abuse. The inference at least is clear. As I stated at the time, the category of sexual abuse wasn’t even listed in my Department for Education statistical source such was its rarity. However, on reading a recent publication by the Parliamentary Education Committee, I am now able to put a figure on this latter category too.

There were 2,370 children thought to be at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. The mid-2010 estimate of the population of 0-17 year olds is 11,045,400. This means that the authorities suspected that 0.02% of children in England were at risk of sexual abuse last year. And this is post-Victoria Climbie when social workers are more suspicious than ever and under pressure to discover more cases of potential abuse than they were before. Another reason, incidentally, to be weary of a dynamic that creates anxieties in professionals too as the ‘something must be done’ brigade, also cited by Fox, gets louder and louder.

As she argues, organising society around a “heightened sense of child protection” is costly in every sense of the word; both for the already stretched social care system and in terms of societal trust. But this doesn’t seem to stop those with the lowest view of their fellow human beings insisting that whatever the figures say, we don’t know what’s going on ‘behind closed doors’. Indeed we don’t, but since when did that become an argument for suspecting the very worst? We have every reason to believe the opposite.

By massively overstating the problem of child abuse they are already undermining our relationships with each other and with the institutions in which we might once have invested our trust. The irony being that the likely consequence of the anxieties promoted by those fuelling the Savile affair is a less safe environment for all of our children. One in which adults (and children alike) are less likely to seek the help of strangers; and are far less minded to intervene if they see a child in distress or danger, for fear of being suspected of something untoward. Such is the legacy of child abuse hysteria.