The last few weeks, indeed the last seven months, have been completely unprecedented in terms of the media focus on child abuse. It's hard to believe, and just as hard to read, the plethora of shocking stories.
Every day it feels like there is another story of children who have suffered abuse, of adults who were abused as children or of another celebrity being accused, charged or convicted. I've almost lost track of the number of official inquiries that are currently underway.
Even a cursory skimming of the news shows that across the country there are reports of trials involving some truly dreadful crimes against children. Just last week we had the conviction of Mark Bridger following the harrowing case of the murder of April Jones. Stuart Hall recently pleaded guilty to 14 attacks on girls as young as 9. The police confirmed they are investigating claims of abuse against 39 music teachers at two Manchester music schools. Long running grooming gang trials in both Oxford and Telford concluded last month. A report looking at abuse in children's homes in North Wales said they had 140 allegations and a possible 84 alleged perpetrators and all of this as the horrors of Savile are still corrupting the national conscious and the work of the Yewtree investigation continues.
So what on earth is going on? Well, I believe some of this is simply coincidence but some gives me reason to be optimistic. Yes, I really did say optimistic.
Rather than view all the reports of these horrific cases as a sign that things are getting worse, we should actually be pleased that they are being exposed, that they are being discussed and that offenders are being taken to court. For instance, the vigorous way in which child sexual exploitation, particularly by gangs, is now being pursued is partly down to a new focus on tackling child sexual exploitation in every part of the justice system following the shocking failure to tackle it in Rochdale. It still has a long, long way to go but the days of social workers and police officers describing 14 year-olds hanging about the streets as 'prostitutes' are thankfully pretty much gone.
People who came forward with accusations against Stuart Hall did so because they had heard the reports about Jimmy Savile. This too is true for many of the other high profile arrests that have occurred recently. And it's not just those relating to celebrities. The NSPCC helpline, seven months after the Savile story broke, is still receiving around a third more calls than usual. And for a while we were receiving 200% more calls on sexual abuse than usual.
Behind every number will be a frightened and confused child who will now be taken from harm and given the chance to enjoy the rest of their childhood because somebody somewhere thought 'something's not quite right.' But rather than go on their way, or wait to be certain, they picked up the phone. One woman said "I've been concerned for some time about a child and then I saw the Jimmy Savile coverage and people saying that people didn't do anything and decided I wasn't going to be one of those people." This is pretty typical of the calls we've been getting.
There is a new found confidence in taking action. In not hesitating.
Keir Starmer the Director of Public Prosecution recently announced changes to how victims of sexual abuse will be dealt with to further improve the chances of a conviction. And I can say from first-hand experience of working closely with the police on several current major investigations that their resolve to follow up every possible line of inquiry is incredibly reassuring.
And just last week we reported that in many ways children and young people are in fact safer than ever before. Our report 'How safe are our children?' took an in depth look across child protection and found that killings of children are significantly down over the last few decades. This is really good news and something I think most would not have expected. And on top of that we have some of the most stringent standards for child protection services anywhere in the world. And of course the opportunities young people now have are improving all the time. I genuinely believe this is a good country to grow up in.
Are we on the cusp of a fundamental change in how we view child abuse, how we report it and how we investigate it? I hope so; and if we are, then the current deluge of stories will have played their part in achieving this change. And in the long run, children will be safer as a result.
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