Safeguarding Children- Changes in Perspective

Since the late 1980s I have spent a large portion of my professional life training and raising awareness of child protection and of the importance of the prevention of harm and abuse. It was quite traumatic for the groups of individuals who were learning about this for the first time. It was also testing for those participants who had considered that the abuse they suffered during childhood was unusual and rare.

As the years have progressed and knowledge of this unsavoury aspect of being a child or young person has developed, my task when meeting training groups has changed. Most people nowadays will be able to name and list the four main areas of abuse in childhood as recognised in the UK. These are physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Of these, the most commonly reported is neglect according to the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) in their statistics. This does not necessarily indicate that this form of abuse is the most prevalent, as the figures below identify.

Facts and Figures about Child Abuse

A significant minority of children suffer serious abuse or neglect, according to NSPCC research:

  • 7 per cent of children experienced serious physical abuse at the hands of their parents or carers during childhood.
  • 1 per cent of children experienced sexual abuse by a parent or carer and another 3 per cent by another relative during childhood.
  • 11 per cent of children experienced sexual abuse by people known but unrelated to them. 5 per cent of children experienced sexual abuse by an adult stranger or someone they had just met.
  • 6 per cent of children experienced serious absence of care at home during childhood.
  • 6 per cent of children experienced frequent and severe emotional maltreatment during childhood.1
  • 16 per cent of children experienced serious maltreatment by parents, of whom one third experienced more than one type of maltreatment.

Ref:  Cawson  2002, Child Maltreatment in the Family: The Experience of a National Sample of Young People, NSPCC.

The widespread reporting of neglect is possibly because it is easier for members of the general public to identify and feel concern about a child who looks ill or unkempt or inappropriately dressed for weather conditions. It is much more difficult to identify and wish to report a concern about a child who may be physically or sexually abused and it is almost impossible to identify a case of emotional abuse.

  • As at 31 March 2003 there were 32,700 children on child protection registers in the UK.
  • Nearly 79,000 children are currently looked after by local authorities in the UK.
  • Every week in England and Wales one to two children will die following cruelty.
  • There are on average 80 child homicides recorded in England and Wales each year.
  • Every 10 days in England and Wales, on average, one child is killed at the hands of their parent – an average of 35 a year over the past five years.
  • The people most likely to die a violent death are babies less than a year old, who are four times more likely to be killed than the average person in England and Wales.
  • Three-quarters of sexually abused children did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time, and around a third still had not told anyone about their experience(s) by early adulthood.
  • Over a quarter of all rapes recorded by the police are committed against children under 16 years of age.
  • 31 per cent of children experienced bullying during childhood, a further 7 per cent were discriminated against and 14 per cent were made to feel different/an outsider. 43 per cent experienced at least one of these things during childhood.

Changes in Training Methods

The training and awareness raising which I offer has also changed through the years. There are still occasions where it is necessary to explain in some detail the different types of abuse but this is mainly to people, especially those who are older or retired, who have not spent their working lives with children and young people. In the main, I speak to groups of qualified professionals who wish to learn more, especially about prevention rather than picking up the pieces where abuse has taken place.

I find that my work takes me more towards those aspects of well-known family issues, such as domestic violence, addiction, poverty and in some cases, inadequate parenting skills. I do not think, for example, that a parent is more inclined to abuse their child just because they are still young – possibly still in their teens and technically a child themselves. However, if the parenting they received during their own childhood was inadequate, or the support they can expect from their family and local authorities is lacking, then they may begin to abuse their child, especially during the first few months of parenthood where they have not yet leaned to understand and identify their baby’s needs or where they find it impossible to consider another person before themselves. As we are one of the most prolific nations producing teenage parents, we must hold ourselves accountable for the high numbers of failed parent/child relationships and the increased burden on services for families with children.

Domestic Violence may be Influential

Another aspect of training that often leads to controversy is my determination to identify domestic abuse as one of the main causes for child abuse. My experience of working with families and victims of domestic violence clearly identifies the child as a casualty, either because they have been directly physically, sexually, emotionally abused or neglected or because they have been bystanders and witnesses to the violence meted out by one parent against another.

These victims are not always identified as such and, as a consequence, they may not recognise what they have absorbed from their role model – their pre-conditioning to become a victim or a perpetrator of the same type of abuse once they find themselves in a similar relationship at a similar age to their parents. It is not a foregone conclusion, but the likelihood is strong if preventative work is not carried out in a timely manner. There have been criticisms leveled against me for including this in the training agenda, but I feel very strongly that until this aspect of abuse in childhood is recognised and addressed in a more proactive way, we will continue to have the same horrendous statistics as we do now.

From my perspective, the more we openly talk about these aspects of family life, the better able we all will be at identifying and feeling confident in reporting concerns to the relevant support services so that the long-term effects of abuse can be lessened for children and young people.

References from www.nspcc.org.uk

DfES (2004) Statistics of Education: Children looked after by Local Authorities, Year Ending 31 March 2003 Volume 1: Commentary and National Tables

National Assembly for Wales (2003) Adoptions, Outcomes and Placements for Children Looked After by Local Authorities: Year ending 31 March 2002

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (N.I.) (2003) Community Statistics 1 April 2002 – 31 March 2003

Scottish Executive (2002) Children Looked After Statistics 2001-2002

Office of National Statistics, Mortality Statistics

Home Office (2004) Crime in England and Wales 2002-3: Supplementary Volume 1, Homicide and Gun Crime

Cawson et al. (2000) Child Maltreatment in the UK: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect NSPCC

Harris and Grace (1999) A question of evidence? Investigating and prosecuting rape in the 1990s Home Office

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