One in Four? Tip of the iceberg

First published in Huffington Post

It’s the favoured statistic of fear-mongers everywhere. 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life. In the United States, according to one campaign group, 1 in 4 college women have survived rape or attempted rape. According to another group, 1 in 4 people in Ireland experience sexual abuse. And in the UK too. As the aptly-named One in Four UK has it: ‘Research has consistently shown that one in four children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18’.

Research? I objected this weekend to an item in which a necessarily hysterical spokesperson for the child protection lobby repeated this ‘research’ in the context of the ongoing Savile witch-hunt. The implication being not only that abuse is very prevalent but that it is of the vile predatory paedophile kind. Of course, as I hope most of us realise, neither of these things are true. The after-the-fact pursuit of Savile, an allegedly despicable pervert who after his death looks every bit the dirty old man, has only confirmed the no less perverse dynamics brought into being by child abuse hysteria. Still one Twitter-follower objected – and maybe not all that unreasonably given the disorienting climate of suspicion – ‘if you know the real figure (as you clearly think you do), now would be a good time to share it’. Which I did. You see while I would prefer to trust that most of us don’t suspect our friends and family of abusing their kids, there comes a time when you have to counter a bad stat with one that has some substance to it.

So here goes. At the end of March 2011, the latest period for which the Department for Education collects statistics, there were 42,700 children in England subject to a child protection plan. That is 42,700 children out of a mid-2010 total estimated at 11,045,400 0-17 year olds. If you do the maths that comes to 0.38658%. You may have noticed that this is rather less than 1 in 4. But what does being subject to a child protection plan, or what used to be called being on the child protection register, actually mean? It means that local authorities are sufficiently concerned that a child may be at risk of neglect or abuse that a social worker and various other professionals are investigating the case to decide what, if any, action to take. And what is meant by abuse? In most cases (42.5%) there is a strong suspicion of child neglect rather than abuse per se; most other cases being one’s of suspected emotional abuse (27.3%) or physical abuse (13%). The DfE Statistical Release doesn’t even mention sexual abuse as a category. Such is its rarity.

Just to be clear. Far from confirming the much-cited 1 in 4 rate of child abuse, the DfE figures show that less than half a percent of children in England are even suspected of being subject to neglect or emotional or physical abuse. And there is an even smaller chance that they are suspected of being sexually abused. No doubt child abuse campaigners will argue that this is just the tip of the iceberg. They always do. Or maybe, like the campaigners against domestic abuse, they will claim that the definition of abuse isn’t wide enough. As I might have said to my Twitter-critic even when you do have the evidence with which to rubbish the dodgy stats produced by those who have already made up their twisted minds; it won’t convince them. The cultural imagination that produces the kind of Savile-related hysteria we have been witness to over recent days and weeks is deeply ingrained. Having the facts on your side is only one part of the battle. The other is to ask why influential sections of society find it so easy to believe 1 in 4 of our children are being abused in the first place?

Where Are The Grown-ups?

First published in Huffington Post

Maybe its because I’ve hit 40 that I’ve developed this ‘what is the world coming to?’ response to much of what I hear in the news. You know the feeling? Its similar to the one when you don’t recognise any of the celebs on the front of Hello! magazine any more; or when you really can’t tell one boy band from another, and are genuinely shocked by the goings-on on Geordie Shore. But maybe its not me, its you. Or them?

It all started with the relentlessly destructive dynamic of the past few weeks’ Jimmy Savile hysteria. The abuse done to our sense of normality, to our ability to get a bit of perspective on things. The BBC apparently admitting all without quite knowing what it was accused of. Then there was the news that the European Court of Human Rights may force us to give prisoners the vote. Some supposedly liberal types thought this a wonderful idea. Not for democracy but for the rehabilitation of prisoners! And the interrogation of Emma Harrison, former chair of the much-maligned A4E, by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News has been doing the rounds on YouTube. The interviewer’s Paxman-like demolition of this former beneficiary of the payment-by-results Work Programme has been much applauded. The Programme itself came out of it relatively unscathed, despite the revelation that millions of public money was spent on getting less than 4 of 100 long-term unemployed into work.

These three stories may sound like they have nothing to do with each other. But they are of a kind in as far as each features the increasingly shaky relationship some of us seem to have with what it means to be an adult. So what really bothered me about Harrison was not her past at A4E but how she played the victim in that interview. She accused Guru-Murthy of bullying her. What irked most about those ‘liberal’ campaigners for prisoner votes is that they were unable to tell the difference between free citizens having the right to exercise that freedom at the polls, and the unfreedom implied by the imprisonment of those who fail to live up to society’s agreed minimum standards. With Savile it was less his alleged abuse of children, than the failure of his detractors to even entertain the notion that allegations against a dead man recollected by adults who were children at the time, do not imply that the BBC, and society at large, is really a giant paedophile ring.

The trawling of 70s and 80s childhoods and the corridors of the BBC for dark tales of unimaginable deeds; the turning of democracy, and the hard won right to vote, into a not very promising therapy for convicts; the appeal to one’s own vulnerability when cornered by a journalist and asked to account for one’s actions; are each testament to the fact that increasingly acting like a grown-up and demanding to be treated as such, has gone out of fashion. We are actively diminished by each of these events, as capable, autonomous adults, deserving of each other’s respect. Trusting that we are not a society of abusers and victims, not turning one bad case into the proverbial and all too chilling ‘tip of the iceberg’; and having self-respect enough not to feel bullied when somebody says something we don’t like, are the sorts of qualities every wannabe grown-up should aspire to. If we don’t rediscover what it means to be a grown-up pretty soon I fear things could really get out of hand. Oh, they already have.