Under the Blair government’s Every Child Matters reforms, local authorities and other agencies working with children are required to protect children under a new duty to ‘safeguard’ them and promote their welfare, to work together more closely and share information, and by creating new high-powered posts to oversee children’s services. However, these reforms are not so much the antidote to child abuse panics, as implicated in them.
If anything, the evidence suggests that abuse is on the decline. The origins of our anxieties are cultural, rather than down to specific threats ‘out there’. In this regard, a distinction needs to be made between the targeted activities of child protection agencies and the ‘awareness’ campaigns of the child protection industry. The conspiratorial obsession on the part of civil liberties campaigners with what information is kept on our children, whilst important, tends to distract us from the bigger threat of a growing mistrust in society created by other more fundamental erosions of our privacy.
Society is not facing a major child abuse epidemic. In fact, the official figures suggest quite the opposite. In the year 2004-05, 23 children in every 10,000 were on the child protection register. This compares with 27 just five years ago, and 32 in 1995. In absolute terms, the numbers of children registered has dropped by more than a quarter in the past 10 years (1). Despite this, we do have a serious problem with anxiety.
It is all too common for the apparently informed commentator to argue that ‘stranger danger’ is exaggerated, only then to explain to the concerned parent that most children are abused by somebody known to them, as if in some perverse way suspicion of what goes on ‘behind closed doors’ is somehow preferable or reassuring. A recent UN-commissioned report claims that in the UK alone seven per cent of children are living in ‘violent homes’ – a figure apparently plucked out of the air but not regarded as any less authoritative for that (2).
While some will readily concede the damage done by relentless panics and scandals such as these, few would challenge the notion, for instance, that the vetting of people working with children is still necessary. Similarly, to declare that ‘no touch’ protocols are an example of political correctness ‘gone mad’ might meet with knowing approval, but this would not begin to challenge the underlying culture of fear that gives rise to such measures (3).
We are not over-protecting our children. We are projecting our fears onto them. By conflating the alleged dangers associated with mobile phones (4), bullying and obesity, with cases of serious abuse, we exaggerate both the gravity and the extent to which children and young people are exposed and made vulnerable to innumerable risks to their welfare. Indeed even those episodes serious enough to merit registration on the child protection register are worth a closer look. Of the children registered last year, 43 per cent were ‘at risk’ of neglect, nearly 20 per cent exposed to emotional or physical abuse, respectively, and just nine per cent to sexual abuse (5). Without seeking to minimise the seriousness of each, the undifferentiating campaigns promoted by the child protection industry give a very different impression.
Though there is very little differentiation between the presentation of one risk and another, it is notable that sexual abuse, the rarest of all the recorded categories, features particularly prominently. For instance, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have recently launched a high-profile campaign aimed at uncovering the sexual abuse that they claim is happening to one in six children (6), and have urged schools to teach their pupils all about it. But also evident, and arguably more worrying, is the degree to which the safeguarding agenda is internalised by even the more conservative elements in society, its inexorable logic meeting scant resistance as it moves from one institution to the next.
Earlier this year the leader of the ‘Muslim Parliament’ raised the alarm on the UK’s madrasas (Islamic schools). He urged that they institute the necessary protocols and safeguards if they are to avoid the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the 1990s. As is typical of such entreaties, it was the continued use of physical discipline by minority sections of the community, and speculation that incidents of sexual abuse were being ‘swept under the carpet’ that featured most strongly. (8)
But the origins of these alleged dangers are not to be found in a propensity to abuse of particular (as yet under-surveilled) sections of society (9). They are instead a symptom of our anxious and risk-averse culture. This is not lost on a political class that is never too cynical to promote a fearful outlook (that incidentally paralyses itself most of all) as an opportunity to connect with us (10). Which is why initiatives like the vetting of people working with children and the introduction of ‘no-touch’ protocols; and the proposal in the Children Act 2004 to store and share information about the nation’s children on a database – are as much an expression of this wider mood in society as they are policy solutions to specific problems.
Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, thinks the database is further evidence of the ‘government’s belief that there is a regulatory solution to every problem’ (11). However, it is suspicion and not surveillance per se that poses the greatest threat to society. Despite important campaigns like Munro’s, including a conference she jointly organised recently (12), many of those opposed to the civil liberties implications of information sharing are remarkably quiet on more everyday incursions into our lives – especially those premised on the protection of children. This inevitably undermines their argument.
It is revealing that the libertarian tendency (to the extent it exists at all) is more likely to be found debating the finer points of the Data Protection Act or worrying over what our store cards reveal about our shopping habits. Munro, at least, is more mindful of the far-reaching implications of the reforms:
‘For most of us, families are a safe haven against the outside world, allowing us to have both a private and a public life. Historically, we have been reluctant to intrude into the family without permission except in extreme circumstances such as serious abuse. The radical reduction in privacy [implied by the proposals on information sharing] can only be justified if it will make a significant difference to the well-being of children…(13)
But she concedes too much. We must not accept the erosion of our privacy in the name of children’s ‘well-being’. While I would agree that with the children’s database ‘the government proposes extending the surveillance mechanisms to all parents because they do not trust any parent to keep track of their own child’s well-being’ (14), this applies equally to other government initiatives such as Surestart, Children’s Centres and Extended Schools. It is for these reasons that an important principle needs to be restated. In the absence of suspicion of ‘significant harm’ parents must be assumed to be competent to care for their own children (15).
Maintaining this test as to when intervention is warranted is important because while it seeks to protect children from abuse, it does not do this (in theory, at least) at the expense of unfounded allegations and state intrusions into our lives. The problem today is that contemporary notions of what constitutes harm, and its significance for the child, are increasingly broad. Consequently, it is only when we begin to challenge the heightening of risk-consciousness, on the one hand, and the exaggerated vulnerability of children, on the other, that we can question the triggering of interventions on dubious grounds, and tackle the broader cultural anxieties that inform them.
Similarly, the case against the children’s database can only be won by trusting rather than undermining those charged with attending to the welfare of our children, be they social workers, teachers, carers or coaches. Though professional competence cannot always be assumed (incidentally, this is one of the lessons we should be learning from the Climbié Inquiry (16)) unless we challenge our culture of mistrust such professionals will never be able to win our confidence, and we will all be the poorer for it. Unfortunately, as the nation’s dentists become the latest recruits (17), the undermining of the traditional roles of professionals working with children, and the introduction of new safeguarding duties, is going to make this an uphill battle.
We need to develop a political culture that resists the replacement of relationships based on trust with relationships based on procedures. It is only by seeking solidarity as adults best able to look after our own children and look out for the welfare of each other’s, that we will be able to achieve this. Distrust of surveillance by the state must not be allowed to extend to the competency of parents or the motivations of adults who work with other people’s children.
Though the death of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her carers was the ostensible catalyst to Every Child Matters, the scope and reach of the children’s agenda makes no sense in its own terms. Only by understanding how the reforms resonate with our anxious times can we see how incidents of abuse, real or imagined, are able to gain a wider significance.
(1) Department for Education and Skills (2006) Referrals, Assessments and Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers: Year Ending 31 March 2005 accessed on 29 July 2006
(2) John Carvel, 1m children in Britain at risk in violent homes, Society Guardian, 15 August 2006
(3) See Frank Furedi (1997) Culture of Fear, London, Cassell
(4) See online debate Mobile phones and child protection – how far should we go?
(5) Department for Education and Skills (2006) Referrals, Assessments and Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers: Year Ending 31 March 2005 accessed on 29 July 2006
(6) NSPCC launches campaign to tackle sex abuse, 0-19, 16 May 2006
(7) Schools urged to help pupils spot abusive relationships, 0-19, 6 June 2006,
(8) Muslim Parliament warns of risk of child abuse in madrasas, 0-19, 28 March 2006
(9) See Jennie Bristow, Children: over-surveilled, under-protected
(10) See Mick Hume, Sarah’s Law, Sven’s Law, lynch law … it’s the law of the desperate politician, The Times (London), 23 June 2006
(11) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]
(12) See Jennie Bristow, Children: over-surveilled, under-protected
(13) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]
(14) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]
(15) See Frank Furedi (2001) Paranoid Parenting, London, Allen Lane for a discussion of contemporary attitudes to parenting capacity.
(16) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]
(17) Asha Goveas, Child protection – Dentists sign up to children’s agenda, Children Now (online), 6 June 2006