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How the abuse industry is exploiting Baby P

If the killing of Baby P wasn’t awful enough, now his death is being used to institute a new era of familial fear and spying.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics UK

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It is becoming clear that the death of Baby P was a double tragedy. First, there was the tragedy of the 17-month-old boy’s neglect and death at the hands of his so-called carers in Haringey, London. Second, there is the tragedy of the ‘lessons learned’: that depraved abuse is widespread; that children around the UK are in mortal danger from their parents and guardians; and that social services must become more confident and cocky about removing children from the family home. One tragic death is being exploited to exaggerate, vastly, the scale of child abuse in the UK, and to re-empower the ‘abuse industry’ to interfere in family life.

This week the respected medical journal the Lancet published an extensive series of articles on child abuse in Britain, which argues that abuse is far more prevalent than we think, but professionals are failing to spot it or take interventionist action. Though the Lancet has been working on the series for the past year, it has, upon its publication, become intimately bound up with the Baby P tragedy. ‘One in 10 children mistreated’ screamed newspaper headlines, next to now-familiar photographs of Baby P. The Baby P link-up isn’t surprising, when you consider that the Lancet itself, in its press release for its series, upfronted the ‘severe child abuse’ of Baby P (1). There’s nothing like a timely, tawdry death to promote one’s research.

The Lancet – whose series on child abuse contains four papers that run to 63 pages – argues that in affluent countries, including the UK, one in 10 children (or 10 per cent) suffer from abuse, yet only around one per cent of children are referred to child protection services. It also claims that 15 per cent of girls and five per cent of boys have been exposed to ‘some sort of sexual abuse’ by the age of 18, and, perhaps most alarmingly, that five to 10 per cent of girls and one to five per cent of boys have suffered from penetrative sexual abuse (2). The image is of a nation in which very large numbers of children are being neglected, abused or even raped, yet where professionals are ‘too timid’ to take action. One contributor to the Lancet says we must do more to ‘ensure we are taking children away from dangerous situations’ (3).

However, these ‘stats’ are more a product of a low-down and prurient misanthropy than rigorous research. For all the declaratory headlines about ‘widespread abuse’ in the UK, the Lancet series is in fact based, not on scientific investigation of the occurrence of child abuse in Britain in 2008, but on a massive and unwieldy overview of more than 500 abuse studies carried out everywhere from the UK to New Zealand. The Lancet authors lumped the studies together – despite the fact that they study different things, and use vastly different methodologies – analysed them, and arrived at the conclusion that, all things considered, probably about 10 per cent of children in wealthy countries are abused. Yet as one critic pointed out, some of the old studies are themselves unreliable, containing ‘small numbers, unrepresentative samples and generalised conclusions’ (4). The notion that you might marry the studies together, pool their wildly differing results, and come to a neat conclusion about the number of kids being abused in the UK today is unadulterated hocus-pocus.

Indeed, so flaky and shaky is the figure of ‘1 in 10 British children abused’ that it doesn’t even appear in the Lancet series itself. Instead, the authors gave this estimate of 10 per cent at their press conference, perhaps recognising that they needed a neat figure to tantalise a press corps that was highly unlikely to wade through 63 pages of analysis of old analyses of child abuse everywhere from Haringey to Wellington. One reason why the authors might have arrived at such a high number of abuse cases is because they used a flabby, all-encompassing definition of abuse, borrowed from one of the American reports that they reanalysed: ‘Child maltreatment encompasses any acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that result in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child even if harm is not the intended result.’ (5)

This could involve almost anything. Indeed, for the Lancet physical abuse can mean ‘hitting, punching, burning’ (6). Parents who physically discipline their children ‘with an implement’ or through regular ‘hitting’ are lumped together with parents who stub cigarettes out on their children’s bodies or who seriously assault them. This suggests that the Lancet doesn’t understand what is and what is not an act of violence against a child. A parent who disciplines his or her child with an implement is not acting violently: the intention is not to injure or abuse, but to discipline; the motivation is mostly love or concern rather than malice. By equating corporal discipline (something that many parents, especially of the traditionalist variety, still carry out) with wanton violence against children (which is thankfully rare), the Lancet study demonises certain parental practices and brackets even loving parents in the Baby P category.

The Lancet’s working definition of abuse also includes psychological and emotional abuse, which can include ‘behaviour that conveys to a child that they are worthless, flawed or unloved’ (7). Again, this is an extremely broad definition. Stern or disciplinarian parents may make their children feel ‘flawed’ because they want them to improve and be successful – is that abuse? Other parents are not naturally touch-feely and may not heap love on their children – does that make them guilty of some kind of ‘emotional neglect’? Many of the studies analysed by the Lancet involved self-reporting of abuse or ‘retrospective recollections’ by adults, so there is also a strong subjective element here: teenagers and young adults often report feeling ‘worthless’ or ‘unloved’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Nobody benefits from creating a slippery slope from sternly criticising a child’s flaws to seriously neglecting their emotional needs.

As an example of how unwieldy, and suspicious, is the Lancet’s view of abuse, its authors argue that many professionals, such as teachers, do not realise that ‘bad behaviour or arriving unwashed at school’ may be the result of maltreatment (8). Here, we can see how almost anything can become an indicator of abuse. Yes, being unwashed might be a sign of maltreatment – but it might just as easily, and more probably, be a sign of an untidy household or of a child that dashes out in the morning without doing as his mum says and washing his hair. Bad behaviour can spring from abuse… but it can also spring from such perfectly ordinary things as childish mischievousness or a rebellious streak. When everything from stern discipline to burning and from criticising flaws to psychological neglect is defined as ‘abuse’, and when everything from being grubby behind the ears to naughty in class is taken as a potential indicator of neglect, it is amazing that only ‘one in 10’ children falls into the Lancet’s promiscuous at-risk category.

The category of sexual abuse seems ill-defined, too. As Stephen Glover said in the Daily Mail: ‘Look at the wide range of figures. One to five per cent of boys are supposedly exposed to penetrative abuse. Which is it? You would think me pretty flaky if I said that London was a city of two to ten million people. The difference is huge.’ (9) Also, for the Lancet sexual abuse seems to include a vast array of unpleasant experiences for anyone aged under 18. Yet as the Independent argued: ‘A girl of 17 who is pressed into having sex by a boyfriend, while a clear instance of abuse, is a different case from that of a seven-year-old raped by a relative… How helpful is it, and how meaningful, to gather the many varieties of cruelty meted out by adults to children – and by children to each other – into one catch-all category of child maltreatment?’ (10)

In the wake of Baby P, and the idea that social workers are not doing enough to uncover abuse, and now this new study that wildly claims abuse is occurring all over the place, many now argue that it is incumbent on all of us to become spies, lookouts for neglect and horror. Even if it gives rise to a ‘culture of denunciation’, says one columnist, aptly drawing upon Stalinist ideology, ‘child abusers need to know on an intimate, cultural level that their actions will not be discreetly ignored’; we need more ‘public intervention’, apparently, to tackle the ‘magnitude’ of the child abuse problem (11). This, too, is a double tragedy. Ordinary families will become objects of suspicion; and if people’s and officialdom’s resources are directed towards spying on everything from tough discipline to lack of washing, all ‘signs of abuse’, then we may well miss the real and still rare cases of violence against children that occur in some communities.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Why moral opportunists are exploiting this tragedy, by Frank Furedi

Dead baby porn, by Brendan O’Neill

Is it P for ‘prole’?, by Tim Black

A needle in the haystack, by Ken McLaughlin

Targeting teenage mothers, by Jan McVarish

Don’t turn this tragedy into policy, by Jennie Bristow

Read more at spiked issue: Baby P.

(1) Teachers, GPs failing to report abuse, Guardian, 3 December 2008

(2) Professionals ‘too timid’ on child abuse, Raising Kids, 3 December 2008

(3) Staff ‘too timid’ on child abuse, BBC News, 3 December 2008

(4) Small numbers, unrepresented samples and generalised conclusions, Daily Mail, 4 December 2008

(5) Small numbers, unrepresented samples and generalised conclusions, Daily Mail, 4 December 2008

(6) One in 10 children maltreated? No, this is ideology dressed up as science, Daily Mail, 4 December 2008

(7) Small numbers, unrepresented samples and generalised conclusions, Daily Mail, 4 December 2008

(8) Teachers, GPs failing to report abuse, Guardian, 3 December 2008

(9) One in 10 children maltreated? No, this is ideology dressed up as science, Daily Mail, 4 December 2008

(10) Statistical improbability, Independent, 4 December 2008

(11) We must make it our business to report abuse, Independent, 4 December 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics UK

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