It's the favoured statistic of fear-mongers everywhere. 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year. 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life. In the United States, according to one campaign group, 1 in 4 college women have survived rape or attempted rape. According to another group, 1 in 4 people in Ireland experience sexual abuse. And in the UK too. As the aptly-named One in Four UK has it: 'Research has consistently shown that one in four children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18'.
Research? I objected this weekend to an item in which a necessarily hysterical spokesperson for the child protection lobby repeated this 'research' in the context of the ongoing Savile witch-hunt. The implication being not only that abuse is very prevalent but that it is of the vile predatory paedophile kind. Of course, as I hope most of us realise, neither of these things are true. The after-the-fact pursuit of Savile, an allegedly despicable pervert who after his death looks every bit the dirty old man, has only confirmed the no less perverse dynamics brought into being by child abuse hysteria. Still one Twitter-follower objected - and maybe not all that unreasonably given the disorienting climate of suspicion - 'if you know the real figure (as you clearly think you do), now would be a good time to share it'. Which I did. You see while I would prefer to trust that most of us don't suspect our friends and family of abusing their kids, there comes a time when you have to counter a bad stat with one that has some substance to it.
So here goes. At the end of March 2011, the latest period for which the Department for Education collects statistics, there were 42,700 children in England subject to a child protection plan. That is 42,700 children out of a mid-2010 total estimated at 11,045,400 0-17 year olds. If you do the maths that comes to 0.38658%. You may have noticed that this is rather less than 1 in 4. But what does being subject to a child protection plan, or what used to be called being on the child protection register, actually mean? It means that local authorities are sufficiently concerned that a child may be at risk of neglect or abuse that a social worker and various other professionals are investigating the case to decide what, if any, action to take. And what is meant by abuse? In most cases (42.5%) there is a strong suspicion of child neglect rather than abuse per se; most other cases being one's of suspected emotional abuse (27.3%) or physical abuse (13%). The DfE Statistical Release doesn't even mention sexual abuse as a category. Such is its rarity.
Just to be clear. Far from confirming the much-cited 1 in 4 rate of child abuse, the DfE figures show that less than half a percent of children in England are even suspected of being subject to neglect or emotional or physical abuse. And there is an even smaller chance that they are suspected of being sexually abused. No doubt child abuse campaigners will argue that this is just the tip of the iceberg. They always do. Or maybe, like the campaigners against domestic abuse, they will claim that the definition of abuse isn't wide enough. As I might have said to my Twitter-critic even when you do have the evidence with which to rubbish the dodgy stats produced by those who have already made up their twisted minds; it won't convince them. The cultural imagination that produces the kind of Savile-related hysteria we have been witness to over recent days and weeks is deeply ingrained. Having the facts on your side is only one part of the battle. The other is to ask why influential sections of society find it so easy to believe 1 in 4 of our children are being abused in the first place?