How safe are our children? How happy are their lives? These are the questions that occupy my mind and should be directing decisions and actions taken by politicians, policymakers and public sector workers across the UK. A quick glance in the media in recent weeks would make you think, incorrectly, we are fighting a losing battle, with the headlines being dominated in particular by the horror stories of prolific paedophile Richard Huckle and the terrible treatment meted out to two-year-old Liam Fee by his mother and her partner before he tragically died.
The awful accounts of what happened in Malaysia and Scotland will have sent a shiver down the spine of parents across the land and all those who work tirelessly to protect young people and improve child welfare. But how do we together stop more and more of these cases from occurring, especially when you take into account the litany of dangers children and young people are now exposed to through the internet.
Delving into the data behind todays 'How safe are our children' report does indeed provide cause for concern. What immediately jumps out is how child abuse cases recorded by police have gone up significantly in the past ten years. Whether this rise tells the full story is open to debate, with under-reporting still believed to be a serious problem across the country. What should not be up for discussion however is each and every one of the children who reported being abused should receive appropriate and timely treatment and support to ensure they make as full a recovery as possible.
The good news is that in the past year child homicide and mortality rates have actually fallen, off-set by the fact that child suicides in England are creeping upwards. This tallies with what we are seeing at the NSPCC, with low mood and unhappiness being two of the most common issues that children contacted us about in 2015/16. Unsurprisingly there has been a significant increase in referrals from ChildLine about mental health issues in the past two years. What we are increasingly concerned about is if they are actually receiving the treatment they need from healthcare authorities. Our campaign, 'It's Time', has shown that these children are being frequently denied the help they need until they reach crisis point meaning they are often left to face depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts without professional help. But many plans drawn up by local NHS commissioners fail to set out how the government's £1.4bn investment in children's mental health services will benefit vulnerable children.
Of equal importance to providing the right treatment is better understanding the pressures that are prompting children to express such misery and knowing how we should act to help counter whatever triggers feelings of low self worth and increased levels of suicidal feelings. There can be little doubt that too many of our young people are getting lost in an online world which promises fun and discovery but often can encourage feelings of isolation and inadequacy. The damage for some is being exacerbated by their involvement in sexting, which for a fleeting moment may seem like a good idea but then quickly descends into feelings of intense shame and regret. 180,000 visits to the ChildLine website for information about sexting and a 15% increase in ChildLine sexting counselling sessions tell their own story.
What we are also getting a much better sense about is how the internet is providing a gateway for sex offenders to crawl unnoticed into our children's lives. According to figures collected from UK police forces there were more than 3000 sex crimes committed against children last year where the online world was used as a facilitator to make that initial contact and to build up a level of trust which previously could only have been gained face-to-face. Reported offences resulting from use of the internet included sexual assaults, grooming victims before meeting them, inciting children to take part in a sexual act and over 100 rapes. Tackling this danger to our young people will be complicated and require an international consensus from internet companies that the NSPCC is committed to seeing delivered. It will also need parents and carers to become more aware of how their child is using the internet and to have open and frank conversations about the dangers they face when going online. In fact more talking between adult and child across the board can only be a good thing as we move forward in a world increasingly dominated by technology and the internet, but still harbouring some of the age old threats to children. Face-to-face communication may be in decline but it still goes an awfully long way to keeping a child safe and happy.