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The use and abuse of vulnerable babies

In these austere times, the race for funds leads groups like the NSPCC to issue shocking stats that don't add up.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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The economic crisis and cuts in public finances have led many campaign groups to make grand claims about how many peole still urgently need their specific services. In hard times, the harsh reality is that good marketing can make the difference between survival and oblivion for such groups.

So, many have been fighting to be regarded as more worthy of government funding or public donations than their counterparts. One strategy has been to publish research which claims to provide compelling evidence about the scale of the problem they are dealing with and the effectiveness of their interventions.

Such advocacy research is an attempt by campaign groups to influence social policy in the direction they favour. In and of itself, this is not a problem. Being passionate about a subject, getting angry about a social problem is commendable and has often led to change and the development of new or improved knowledge. The problem arises when, to get their particular concern up the political agenda in order to generate more income, such organisations inflate the extent of their particular concern. Instead of improving knowledge they then end up distorting the real scale of the problem and adversely affecting policy.

The economic crisis was always likely to exacerbate this situation. As the cuts bite, many groups are struggling to carry on with much reduced budgets. And so, in order to survive, they need to argue their case as forcefully as possible. Consequently, a sort of Austerity-Inspired Advocacy Race has kicked off this year, with many competitors trying to maintain their position at the forefront of public and governmental consciousness.

MIND, the mental health charity which frequently warns that one in four of us suffers from some mental health problem or other, could have been considered frontrunners in this race, but then it found itself overtaken by the new mental health kid on the block, Platform 51 (formerly the Young Women’s Christian Association). Platform 51 raised the bar from MIND’s 25 per cent figures with its claim that 60 per cent of women are suffering from some form of mental health problem. Having raised our awareness (or more precisely that of potential funders) of the hitherto hidden extent of the problem, Platform 51 also put itself forward as a potential service provider to help the three in five of you women reading this who would apparently otherwise be unable to cope.

As relative newcomers to the race, Platform 51 made a bold bid in the 2011 Austerity-Inspired Advocacy Race. However, even they have been left in the stalls as the heavyweights show their class when it comes to scaring the public and highlighting their indispensability to contemporary society. For instance, having spent years campaigning on behalf of children, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) would clearly need something new to catapult itself back to media and political prominence. After all, in social policy terms we’ve been aware that ‘Every Child Matters’ for some time now, so that wouldn’t do the trick. ‘Every Child Really Matters Lots, Honest’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, nor does it lend itself too readily to media sound bite.

‘All Babies Count’, now that’s a good one, and that is indeed the title of a new NSPCC report which claims that one in four babies in Britain is at risk of abuse, mainly, but not exclusively, due to their parents’ behaviour. Here, the NSPCC shows its superiority over other campaign groups, taking many of their particular concerns (domestic violence, mental health, drug- and alcohol-misuse) and uniting them for greater effect. Then it plays its trump card by associating these issues with infant maltreatment.

All Babies Count illustrates the best and worst of advocacy research. It correctly points out that babies under 12 months are particularly vulnerable, although you hardly need a PhD in child development to figure that one out. Of more relevance to social policy formation is the report’s claim that between 2007 and 2009 45 per cent of serious case reviews concerned children in that age category, and also that babies are eight times more likely to be killed than older children.

Such an identified increase in risk certainly warrants investigation to find out why that is the case and to identify measures for improvement. To this extent, the NSPCC report documents some relevant theories around child development and related support initiatives. However, the report mostly draws on existing research, most of which will be well known to childcare professionals. The problem really starts when the NSPCC provides its own analysis, which risks making things harder for those professionals trying to help parents in need of support in raising their infant.

As of 31 March 2010 there were 4,400 babies in England subject to a child protection plan (CPP). Interestingly, and perhaps due to an already heightened sensitivity to risk by professionals, the number of children subject to a CPP has risen by 50 per cent in recent years (from 26,400 in 2006 to 39,100 in 2010). There were 268 serious case reviews held between 2007 and 2009, a substantial rise on preceding years, which may also indicate a lower threshold for referral. Out of all these cases, 119 concerned a child under 12 months. Hopefully, we can learn from such reviews to help prevent similar cases arising in the future, although even the authors of the biennial report are concerned that the rise in the number of reviews taking place may divert resources from child protection operational services.

As tragic as many of the cases of child maltreatment referred for review may be, the above figures thankfully do not indicate an epidemic of child cruelty and abuse within society. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the NSPCC from warning that infant maltreatment is particularly shocking ‘because of the relative prevalence of such maltreatment’. Yes, babies are statistically more at risk relative to other age groups, but the overall numbers of babies being maltreated are still very low.

This is where the worst of advocacy research manifests itself. The NSPCC takes identified risk factors found within a small number of serious case reviews (domestic violence, mental health problems, drug/alcohol misuse) and extrapolates from that to create headline-grabbing figures which claim that one in four babies in the UK could be at risk of abuse. From an analysis of 119 cases it confidently asserts, and highly publicises, that approximately 198,000 infants in the UK are potentially put at risk by their parents. And, of course, the NSPCC puts itself forward as being well placed to deliver training to help alleviate such a situation.

Such an approach is not only unhelpful, it can also make the situation worse by leading to disjointed and poorly targeted social policy and related service provision. It can also heighten a sense of anxiety as the dangers we face, or indeed pose to others, are emphasised, which in turn can estrange us from each other and invite unwarranted state surveillance.

Many of those working in the area of social policy and child protection are only too well aware of the dangers posed by the blanket suspicion of families. An analogy that has been used is that when you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is not helpful to build the haystack even higher. This is something the NSPCC should take on board, otherwise it is open to the charge that its main concern is with its own existence rather than the welfare of children.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.

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Topics Politics

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