Why is keeping children safe from harm seemingly so challenging for so many parts of the country?
Once again, this time on the back of Rotherham, we find ourselves asking the question in the full public gaze.
Perspective on the issue is, of course, essential – as long as it is not seen as being at the expense of taking matters sufficiently seriously and doing something. For example, the NSPCC’s 2014 report – How Safe Are Our Children? – states that “in many ways children are safer than they were a generation ago”.
However, the society is also quick to point out that this general statement masks some very concerning issues: the incidence of neglect is not reducing; exposure to domestic violence remains alarmingly high; cyber threats and bullying are increasing; and self-harm is on the increase.
The report also talks about the threat posed to child protection services from the sustained reduction in resources that councils and a number of other public agencies are experiencing, and provides an analysis of how demand is outstripping resources.
With this in mind, it seems to me that we need to think very carefully about what we say and do next. It is easy to concentrate our efforts on the lazy rhetoric of “never again” and the almost irresistible temptation to play the blame game. Both, I guess, serve a function and we must never lose sight of the need for visible justice for the children concerned, as well as the provision of ongoing support for them.
But I am also desperately keen to be part of an informed and sustained national dialogue about why abuse remains so stubbornly present in too many families and communities and to use this to inform what we are going to do about the root causes of this situation.
We seem to have found ourselves in a feedback loop. Once the resignations, sackings and contrition are over, we then default to an age-old internalised response of focusing on how to improve the child protection system.
Undoubtedly, it can get better, but surely any perceived and real failings of the multi-agency system need to be seen as a breakdown in the checks and balances for a wider societal issue: namely, that there remain endemic power imbalances related to age, gender and race that ensure abuse remains culturally institutionalised and, consequently, too often something that is either ignored, misunderstood or condoned.
To be anecdotal for a moment: I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and I can still recall with depressing clarity too many occasions when I heard about what we now call domestic violence as a “little local difficulty” and a private matter between partners, accompanied by the refrain “she must have done something to provoke him”. As for any children involved: silence. A caricature perhaps, but not without substance.
Over time, we are coming to see domestic violence as the complex, pervasive, destructive and unacceptable crime that it is. Even after perhaps two decades of exposure as a very public matter, Women’s Aid still reported in 2011-12 that 7.3% of women and 5% of men had experienced some form of domestic abuse in that year, while 750,000 children had been witness to it. These figures are generally acknowledged to be significantly lower than the reality of such abuse.
So, personally, and as Solace president, I want to see something different happen in the light of the Rotherham report. I want our politicians, our civic and religious leaders, every professional worth their salt, and our communities to sign up to making the exposure and eradication of the causes of abuse the number one common cause.
We can take the example of domestic abuse (imperfect though it is) as encouragement because if we don’t, we are doomed again to trot out the cliche that “this must never happen again” while concealing the hypocrisy that we have not done enough to make recurrence less likely.
Remember the wise words of Barnardo’s: “if you can’t rule it out, rule it in” and “a child cannot consent to their own abuse”.
Alternatively, philosopher Edmund Burke is also apposite: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Mark Rogers, chief executive, Birmingham City Council, and president, Solace