Watch Me Disappear

‘They say Mandy is missing, but I think of it as hiding.’

Watch Me Disappear at times reads like a darker literary take on the ‘I love…’ TV format, peppered as it is with the 1970s trivia of spangles, twister and such like. The juxtaposition with child abuse, child abduction, dodgy adults and a simmering family crisis, is particularly striking. It is also a ‘coming of age’ piece about growing up, about the slightly disturbing games young girls play (or used to play), and their awkward encounters with older boys. In the current climate of pervasive fear and anxiety that surrounds discussion about children, their safety, and ‘well-being’, we perhaps have more difficulty separating the two (child abuse and the normal experiences of growing up) thus adding to the ambiguity and the reader’s uneasiness.

The stark descriptions of the landscape of Ely, Cambridgeshire where the novel is set, an island until the Fens were drained in the 1600s, are particularly evocative, portraying an overwhelming sense of brooding discontent, hidden secrets and impending revelation. Ely cathedral, we are told, is ‘the only solid thing in a landscape made of mist and water, smoke and mirrors’. Tina’s dad likens it to a ship, but now it is ‘tipping’, sinking like everything else, he says. Her mum used to describe her dad’s tempers as a ‘Fen Blow’. Mum hates the landscape for its exposed flatness, for what it might reveal. When the real Fen blows out of season she thinks it a ‘freak of nature’, a ‘terrible sign’ that things are ‘not right’. The unnatural goings on are portended in the surroundings.

The novel is dripping in metaphors, not least about water, its power, its pressure. On hearing a particularly shocking revelation, Tina tells us: ‘My ears explode. A whoosh as the pressure inside my head bursts like a balloon’. You can’t help but anticipate a watery end for her ‘missing’ friend, Mandy. You find yourself waiting for the surface of the Fens to be breached by the water beneath, for nature to reassert itself, bursting that ‘fine black skin capping the centuries of water, the secrets’. But this releasing and revealing is not all for the good. ‘Now it’s unspooling right in front of me and it’s too late to rewind’ she says. It’s being dredged up with the water but the evidence, like the cathedral, is slowly sinking from view.

Tina has a kind of epilepsy causing flashbacks and hallucinations. She consequently has quite an imagination. Though this leads us to doubt her accounts and revisitings, the reader is nevertheless encouraged to share her suspicions about her dad. He is we learn ‘a bit funny’ and has a ‘thing about girls’, euphemisms that once served their purpose well, I think. People knew each other more or less, particularly in communities like Ely, and consequently knew who and what they were talking about. They had shared points of reference against which to judge deviations. Though this could of course bring on Salem tendencies, so too does our own more individuated and anonymous culture of suspicion and vetting.

But there seems to be a turning point. The Moors murders (and to a lesser extent, the early prowlings of the Yorkshire Ripper) were a watershed in the public consciousness. In one of her flashbacks to the 1970s of her youth, Tina and her mum are watching a news report. ‘There are some terrible, wicked people in the world, Tina’, her mum tells her. The more measured tones of her Partridge Family equivalent – ‘Bad things happen but there are still plenty of good people in the world’ – seems a little less real. It just doesn’t cut it anymore. The slightest reference is made to the infamous tapes the Moors murderers made of one of their victims, but that’s all it takes for this reviewer. I couldn’t help thinking that everything changed just then. Those recordings were testament to the most awful inhumanities imaginable inflicted upon children. Or so we were told. Most of us (all of us?) have never heard them. They are ‘unimaginable’, but that’s what makes them so disturbing, because we try to imagine them despite ourselves. In that way, we are all a little like Tina perhaps.

Back to the present and the objects of our fear and loathing are less obvious. When her sister-in-law comments that ‘half of England’ is searching for the missing girls, Tina playfully, misanthropically, wonders if the other half might be ‘the abductors and paedophiles’. Thinking back, she and all her friends had their ‘dodgy encounter growing up’. The dirty old man. The flasher. It was accepted, a ‘giggle with your mates’. Only now does she wonder how these ‘encounters’ might have featured in the papers the next day if things had turned out different.

This is a theme that really chimed with this reviewer. The all-pervading uncertainty, of Tina’s failing to put her finger on the source of her anxieties about the past, about what remains just out of view. It is the ‘ill-defined, inchoate sense of something, something not right’ in her childhood. It is not a particular event but something ‘more nebulous, cumulative. It’s not specifics but feelings’, she says. This is a familiar feature of the endless child abuse panics that parents (and the rest of us) are subjected to. We are told abuse is everywhere, and yet actual known instances turn out to be rare. It is the mismatch, the space between the two that heightens our fears. Related to this are the variations on the theme of absence. Such as being lost, failing to find something or grasping for what is just out of reach. This idea of being ‘at sea’ (to use another watery metaphor) or losing your bearings in the featureless Fens is also, it seems to me, a property of a culture that has come to lose its way and, importantly in this discussion, its sense of perspective. Watch Me Disappear, for all its preoccupation with the past, is a book of its times.

Does Every Child really Matter?

29 October, 2006, Battle of Ideas, Royal College of Art, London

At his trial, Manning said that Kouao [his partner, the girl’s great aunt] would strike Victoria on a daily basis with a shoe, a coat hanger and a wooden cooking spoon and would strike her on her toes with a hammer. Victoria’s blood was found on Manning’s football boots. Manning admitted that at times he would hit Victoria with a bicycle chain. Chillingly, he said, ‘You could beat her and she wouldn’t cry … she could take the beatings and the pain like anything’…Victoria spent much of her last days, in the winter of 1999-2000, living and sleeping in a bath in an unheated bathroom, bound hand and foot inside a bin bag, lying in her own urine and faeces. It is not surprising then that towards the end of her short life, Victoria was stooped like an old lady and could walk only with great difficulty.

This is an extract from the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, to which Every Child Matters, the governments reforms of children’s services, we were told was a response. It was followed, not long after, by the similarly high profile Bichard Inquiry, into the tragic deaths of the Soham girls at the hands of Ian Huntley.They differed in as far as Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were murdered by a stranger, whereas Victoria was murdered by those charged with her care. The government’s response to both inquiries had an impact and developed a remit that went far beyond the particulars of the matters with which they were supposedly concerned. Consequently one investigation came to frame the campaign for vetting people who work with children and the subsequent Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill currently going through parliament. The other became a vehicle for the project of‘mainstreaming’ child protection and questioning the capacities of parents and carers to look after even their own children.

But how did we get here? How was an investigation into a child’s murder by her carers turned into a catalyst for the wholesale transformation of children’s services in this country? A glance through the Every Child Matters Green Paper raises more questions that it answers. There is little mention of child protection and even less how we might avoid other children going the way of Victoria. Beyond child murder, we are told, Every Child Matters will address youth justice, youth activities, educational failure and exclusions from school, anti-social behaviour and young people as victims of crime; homelessness, substance misuse, obesity, suicide, truancy, domestic violence; teenage parents, foster parents, poor parents, unemployed parents, low income families and family breakdown; low birth weight, post-natal depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

But what you might ask has any of this to do with Victoria laying in that bath? Is some sort of equivalence being drawn between violent or sexual abuse and a child not doing their homework? If not, why are they being talked about in the same breath, in the same document, as if they had something to do with each other? There is a constant slippage between categories, a drawing together of material disadvantage and behavioral problems with abuse and neglect. All of which begs the question, if indeed every child does ‘matter’, ‘Why does every child matter?’ and ‘How does every child matter?’ Why every child and not that particular child, Victoria Climbie, and children like her? Is Victoria representative of a wider suffering? Is that what connects her to every other child? Or do all these other children ‘matter’ in a different way? Are they on that list somewhere? Throughout there are references to children being ‘at risk’. At risk of what – abuse, murder or missing an appointment with the dentist? The sentence is never finished. The threat is never specified.

Is it about children at all? Just as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill is also about protecting ‘vulnerable adults’, it seems that we ‘matter’ too. In Wolverhampton the Council and Primary Care Trust have jointly declared that ‘Every Adult Matters’. In Lincolnshire, I understand that ‘Every Street Matters’. For the Scottish Executive, never one to do things by halves, Every Child, Every Young Person, Every Old Person and Every Community Matters .

But I digress. How did we get from child protection, something that used to be understood as a specialist field of social work, concerned with those rare instances of severe mistreatment of children by adults, to something that has apparently broken free of its institutional moorings and become a booming industry. In which so-called ‘experts’ routinely pedal fears that are often either spuriously founded, wildly exaggerated or both. Perhaps taking their lead from the Green Paper, they conflate a shopping list of dubious dangers from unscrupulous advertisers and bullying, to mobile phones and obesity, with serious abuse and neglect. In doing so they exaggerate both the gravity and the extent to which children and young people are exposed and made vulnerable to innumerable risks. It is the fears of the most innocuous or unlikely that the ‘industry’ stokes. To the extent that we now find ourselves in a situation where children it seems are universally vulnerable to the alleged toxicity of modern life itself.

Every Child Matters endorses this notion of a wider abuse being done to children. They are, claims the prime minister, “a standing shame to us all”. It is for this reason that we are told that “child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children’s lives as a whole” but must operate “within the framework of universal services” and “be a fundamental element across all public, private and voluntary organizations.” All of which goes way beyond the duty on local authorities to protect children from significant harm as established in the Children Act 1989. Indeed, the only likely outcome is significant harm to children, their relationships with adults, and consequently to society as a whole.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Fostering Network a third of foster carers have been wrongly accused of abusing or harming the children they look after. The children are removed, causing all sorts of upset and instability while the claims are investigated. This is at a time when there is already a massive shortfall of carers with local authorities forced to run high profile recruitment campaigns. In the other Green Paper, Care Matters, recently published by the DfES, and aimed at transforming the lives of children in the care system, we are only reminded that when the state does assume responsibility for the upbringing of children already subject to disadvantages, it compounds these and fails them badly. Many leave school without any qualifications at all, find themselves living on the streets or else at her majesty’s pleasure.

Despite its own dismal record as a ‘corporate parent’, it is the state and those agencies it co-opts to its safeguarding agenda, that plays the critical role in generating and lending legitimacy to our anxieties. Almost in spite of itself, it adds fuel to the fire in an effort to engage with and recognise our fears and insecurities and ends up further reinforcing the case for more regulation, more protocols, more checks.But initiatives like the vetting of people working with children, the introduction of ‘no-touch’ protocols and the requirement in the Children Act 2004 to store and share information about the nation’s children on a database (or ‘index’ as it is now called) – amounting as they do to a new managerialism of fear – are as much an expression of this wider mood in society as they are policy solutions to specific problems. And only by understanding how they resonate with our anxious times can we see how incidents of abuse, real or imagined, are able to gain a wider significance. We need to challenge the heightening of risk-consciousness, on the one hand, and the exaggerated vulnerability of children, on the other.

What happened to Victoria and the Soham girls is thankfully very rare, and yet is often presented as emblematic of an uncaring society that is frankly too ready to believe the worst about itself. Their peculiarly horrible experiences gain a greater resonance and are credited with a wider significance than they truly deserve. As a consequence, we, both as a society and particularly those agencies and professionals involved, are less likely to learn any lessons where they are to be had. And finally and most importantly of all, both the authoritarian interventions of the state and the wider growth of the child protection industry threaten to poison the relationship that ministers and lobbyists claim to be in the business of defending – that between children, young people and the adults best able to look out for and look after them.

Every Child Matters – but so does our privacy

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

Shattered Lives

‘Most of the children cried quietly. I did too.’

There is a humane core to Shattered Lives. In a series of letters to some of her young clients, the founder of the south London children’s charity Kids Company rightly berates a society that refuses to take collective responsibility for its children, preferring to criminalise them for petty acts or to run in fear from their childish tantrums – and yet for all that, refuses to grow up itself. Batmanghelidjh rages against the dehumanising institutions and practices of the welfare state on behalf of marginalised and brutalised children. The portrayal of society as uncaring and its institutions as unresponsive to their desperate needs rings true.

The managerial framework within which public services are delivered today is relatively unmoved by appeals to our common humanity. But the author’s rejection of ‘business values’, in favour of regaining a lost sense of ‘emotional vocation’ that she argues informs the practice of care-giving, reveals a commonly held misconception of the problem with welfare provision. It is not care and compassion that are missing, but any compelling notion of public service. In its place we have an instrumental use of social policy to meet bureaucratic political ends such as ‘diversity’ on the one hand and ‘social inclusion’ on the other, rather than meeting people’s needs.

And I suspect that Batmanghelidjh is at times cavalier with the truth – the empirical truth, that is, as opposed to the psychological truth she prefers to indulge in. Batmanghelidjh’s dramatising of degradation and misfortune sometimes appears more fantastical than real. Perhaps that is unfair, and I am belittling unimaginable horrors out of ignorance. In which case I apologise, but we are given little else to go on.

By claiming to speak on the children’s behalf she gives herself unlimited licence as her clients’ self-appointed ventriloquist – as their ‘voice’. But this can just as easily mean she ends up mouthing her own prejudices. For instance, the author’s portrayal of young people prone to bouts of violence as automatons subject to a ‘pre-programmed biological response which is activated through physiological arousal responses and body memories’, takes us into the realms of pseudo-science.

Elsewhere, the reader is assumed to be both unsceptical and cynical, ready to believe that terrible things happen more or less routinely. Did the cops really sell on the drugs, or did the young person make that bit up, or imagine it perhaps. Are the judges corrupt too? Did those 12-year-old kids really brandish machine guns? (‘No one could catch them’). As we are already implicit in the abuse done to them (or so the argument goes), to doubt their stories would be to revisit it upon them once more.

Beyond this, the author’s own radical pretensions to fighting a lone battle on behalf of damaged kids tends to obscure what she has in common with her contemporaries working inside these failing institutions. They may at times appear indifferent to the suffering of the ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ kids deemed ineligible for their services. But she shares a commitment to the orthodoxies on which their practice is based – not least of which is an over-attachment to attachment theory. And this is a bond that endures because of the prejudices of the age rather than the ever elusive evidence-based practice.

It was the powerful influence of a traditional gendered morality that gave attachment theory its initial wind when Bowlby proposed the theory in the 1950s. Today, it is the mistrust of the motivations and capacities of ever more parents, and an underestimation of the potential of individuals to transcend their background and their problems early on in life, that gives it its staying power. This is one example of how Batmanghelidjh’s hermetically sealed therapeutic discourse presents dangers of its own, condemning young people to lives that they might not otherwise recognise as theirs.

‘Poorly attached infants’ she pronounces, ‘do not bring resilience into their childhood’. Well, that’s that then. Except resilience is not a function of a child’s relationship with their principal carer and is not necessarily killed off by what she calls ‘murderous motherhood’. It develops as a consequence of living with and battling against adversity. The steely exteriors of some of the children that feature in Shattered Lives is taken as a warning sign of the destructive tempest within rather than evidence of a robust character perhaps able to withstand life’s hardships better than most.

Batmanghelidjh claims to uphold the resilience of her subjects, but simultaneously denies them the agency needed to break free of the destructive cycles of abuse, or the intrusive recall of childhood traumas in later life, to which she insists they are or will be subject. It seems that the more adjusted these young people are to the unimaginable horrors they have endured, the more likely they are to find themselves subject to her therapeutic interventions.

This book endorses what I would like to call ‘therapocracy’, an aspect of the government’s ‘well-being’ agenda. Having started in a school broom cupboard, the author’s ‘therapy rooms’ (as she likes to call them) now have official sanction in the form of DfES funding, and are sprouting up all over the place. This indicates the government’s new-found interest in society’s happiness and discussed in the work of its ‘guru’, Richard Layard. Like Layard, Batmanghelidjh believes that the nation’s mental health should be high on the political agenda, and that the workforce should be therapeutically trained.

Batmanghelidjh also argues that parents ‘be helped to take on board the complex psychological responsibility of parenting’, lest they inadvertently traumatise their children and presumably cause their lives to spin out of control like those of the young people featured in her book. That makes sense if you disregard any sense of perspective you might once have had, and draw some kind of equivalence between children exposed to prolonged or repeated episodes of abuse and neglect with those whose parents are in a grey area perhaps just short of being – to use the common parlance – ‘good enough’ or ‘competent carers’. This expansionist mindset is also evident in her argument that young offenders should be placed on the child protection register because they are victims too.

From the outset it has to be acknowledged that the subject matter of this book is hardly cheery. But having said that, it is striking that the prognosis presented by the author for the children on whose behalf she claims to speak, is what really rankles and gets the reader down. Her outlook is unrelentingly bleak; she is hardly the sort of character you want around when you’re looking for a bit of a lift. This is what makes the improbably articulate suicide note that is included in the book all the more worrying. It seems as much a product of Batmanghelidjh’s own ideas as the desperate circumstances that the young person is grappling with.

Suicide, she says, ‘is a way out and must not be seen as entirely negative’. Really? OK, the young person in question may already be on a downward spiral, but if Batmanghelidjh can’t see beyond the next ‘living task’ why should they? Why can’t she help them find the better ‘way out’ instead of endorsing their despair? Of the young person in question, and without irony, she says ‘Your past and present [are] separated by a fragile membrane’. Hold on a second. After being told that you are irreparably damaged as a consequence of your trauma and upbringing, and after your therapist has been relentlessly picking away at that bloody ‘membrane’, is it any wonder that you are unable to put the past behind you, or that the metaphorical scab separating now from then won’t heal?

Thankfully the young person didn’t go through with it, but there’s a handy template for any other desperate souls dangling their legs over the edge and waiting for someone to push them off.

‘British mainstream politics’ the author argues ‘prides itself on its compassion towards the children of Africa’ while continuing to neglect the ‘abuse’ (generically speaking) done to children at home. But this is precisely why such patronising campaigns should be avoided here. It is easy for the great and good to side with the marginalised and oppressed, and feel their pain – as the gushing reviews on the back cover from the likes of Ruby Wax, Jon Snow and the Archbishop of Canterbury attest. But what kind of recognition do these celebrities offer the subjects of Shattered Lives other than a starring role in their degraded fantasies.

Batmanghelidjh speaks to a deep pessimism about our ability to socialise the young or to act in their best interests. She is right to criticise a ‘readiness to perceive ourselves as victims’ but apparently oblivious to her own complicity in the creation of a culture that makes victims of us all. We are all implicated in her tales of depravity, either as abusers or as abused. Indeed if anybody does escape the various ‘cycles’ that she describes, they are even guiltier for being mere ‘bystanders’ to the whole sorry episode and doing nothing about it. It is a book about what lurks around imagined dark corners – of the psyche as much as society. But in the end, it is little more than therapy for self-loathing misanthropes seeking an explanatory narrative for their own disorientation.

Those working with children living in such dire circumstances need to be allowed to get on with it. That means taking the therapeutic orthodoxies of Batmanghelidjh and her ilk with a very large dose of salt, while recognising that there are insights to be had. And though there are important political arguments to be won over the structural causes of the poverty in which such trajectories so often find their origin, let’s not flatter ourselves that these young people’s extreme misfortunes are part of our wider social malaise.

Like Victoria Climbie and the Soham girls before them, the children featured in Shattered Lives will doubtless be treated as emblematic in a society scratching around for moral pointers and ready to believe the worst about itself. As a consequence, not only will the particular and desperate needs of the individuals detailed in the book (and children like them) be further neglected – but in becoming instruments of public controversy, their peculiarly horrible experiences will gain greater resonance and be credited with a wider significance than they deserve.

Children These Days

Children These Days, Nicola Madge, The Policy Press

Star Rating: 2/5

This book touches on important contemporary discussions – such as the notion that young people are both universally vulnerable and aspirant mini-adults denied their rights – only to get entangled by them, writes Dave Clements.

Unfortunately the author’s surveys of the literature on childhood, growing up and inter-generational relations are undermined by the survey of children’s and parents’ views around which it is ostensibly written. This is not a thought to utter in polite child-friendly circles but I was none the wiser for having read them.

It is, ironically for advocates of this sort of thing, naive and patronising to give children the last word on each and every issue.

The discovery that homework is unpopular, or that concerns over personal safety and the environment rate highly, rather suggests that any insights are far outweighed by the banal and the impressionable.

If we are to really understand children these days, we could do worse than trying to get to grips with what’s going on in the adult world first.