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Abusing Trust With Dodgy Child Abuse Statistics

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'Can everyone please calm down about child abuse?' pleaded Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, in one of the few sane and sober commentaries I'd read on the subject. If only those foolish enough to spread suspicion and rumour on the back of the perverse dynamics of the Savile hysteria had heeded these wise words.

Fox wrote the piece following an appearance on Newsnight that, she said, prompted a "minor Twitchunt". Ironically enough sounding not disimilar to that which was to nearly sink said BBC flagship only days later as it embarked on its own rumour-mongering tarted up as investigative journalism.

In a misguided effort to undo the criticisms of what, in retrospect, might be regarded as an admirably cautious editorial decision not to run the Savile documentary; it took the 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink' approach instead. And in so doing it indulged in the kind of thing that supposedly respectable media organisations have, post-Leveson, been accusing the gutter press of.

As Fox had warned against they opted "to treat rumour as fact". Not unlike those other investigations not worthy of the name: notorious social services departments pursued imagined and (as it turned out) imaginary episodes of child abuse in the 1980s. Children were taken from their families on the grounds of scarily-wacky social work theories about Satanic Abuse or, as Fox puts it, because of the ridiculous conviction that 'all victims must be believed'.

Having written my own piece for The Huffington Post UK disputing the much-repeated statistic that 1 in 4 children are abused, this social work favourite was cited in response. We don't believe your statistics I was told. They 'minimise' abuse. Children don't lie, apparently. And if they do lie, according to the bizarre and twisted logic of abuse hysteria, its because they are hiding something. Probably abuse.

That these sorts of ideas 'inform' the decision making of a profession whose reputation rises and falls on the perceived wisdom of its interventions into children's and families lives is scandalous. Or at least it would be if we weren't so obsessed with (actually rare) child abuse. As I explained in my blog, only 0.4% of children are even deemed to be at risk of any kind of abuse - mostly neglect and emotional abuse, and a few cases of physical abuse.

This is in contrast with the exaggerated claims of rampant abuse being made in the context of a controversy about alleged incidences of sexual abuse. The inference at least is clear. As I stated at the time, the category of sexual abuse wasn't even listed in my Department for Education statistical source such was its rarity. However, on reading a recent publication by the Parliamentary Education Committee, I am now able to put a figure on this latter category too.

There were 2,370 children thought to be at risk of sexual abuse in 2011. The mid-2010 estimate of the population of 0-17 year olds is 11,045,400. This means that the authorities suspected that 0.02% of children in England were at risk of sexual abuse last year. And this is post-Victoria Climbie when social workers are more suspicious than ever and under pressure to discover more cases of potential abuse than they were before. Another reason, incidentally, to be weary of a dynamic that creates anxieties in professionals too as the 'something must be done' brigade, also cited by Fox, gets louder and louder.

As she argues, organising society around a "heightened sense of child protection" is costly in every sense of the word; both for the already stretched social care system and in terms of societal trust. But this doesn't seem to stop those with the lowest view of their fellow human beings insisting that whatever the figures say, we don't know what's going on 'behind closed doors'. Indeed we don't, but since when did that become an argument for suspecting the very worst? We have every reason to believe the opposite.

By massively overstating the problem of child abuse they are already undermining our relationships with each other and with the institutions in which we might once have invested our trust. The irony being that the likely consequence of the anxieties promoted by those fuelling the Savile affair is a less safe environment for all of our children. One in which adults (and children alike) are less likely to seek the help of strangers; and are far less minded to intervene if they see a child in distress or danger, for fear of being suspected of something untoward. Such is the legacy of child abuse hysteria.