Do we take the welfare and safety of our children seriously as a society? Taken at face value the answer has to be 'yes'.
Firstly, despite the recent economic difficulties, the last century has seen huge rises in wealth and opportunity for children. More young people stay in education or training post 16 than ever before. When I was at school foreign holidays were rare but now they are the norm, most children have access to a family car, a TV, computer and a library. Children are vaccinated against disease, get free dental care, subsidised travel on public transport and their families receive money from the state to help with the costs of parenting. So as overall wealth has increased there has been a conscious decision by successive governments to invest in children. The result has been that the health, material comfort and wellbeing of children have improved.
And secondly, as a society we have also invested in supporting a safe and nurturing environment for all children. Laws have been passed that both state that children are entitled to be safe, and define what, who and how this will be ensured. Structures have been developed around schools, GPs and social services that support families and intervene to protect children when there is a problem. The message has been clear - safe and nurtured children are all of our priority. And successive Governments have consciously chosen to legislate to try and achieve just that.
All good so far. As a society, at face value we do take the welfare of our children seriously. But scratch beneath the surface and it is not so clear. In 2011, almost 45,000 people across the UK contacted the NSPCC with concerns about a child - a 29% increase on the previous year. But 56% of people whose call to the NSPCC was so serious it needed further action said they had been concerned about the child for at least a month. Over a quarter had waited at least six months to report their concerns.
To address this reluctance to take action we have launched a campaign today - 'Don't Wait Until You're Certain' - to encourage people to report concerns about child abuse sooner.
The reality is that all too often we send out very mixed messages about our level of seriousness. Take the recent horrific cases of Roshane Channer and Ruben Monteiro. Both 21, they raped an 11-year-old girl in Bedfordshire. And for good measure they videoed the attack. Their justification? They thought that the victim was 14. And for this vile attack they received a 40 month prison sentence. Forty months; what sort of signal does that send about how seriously we take the welfare of our children? The Attorney General, following calls from the NSPCC and others, has now referred these sentences to the Court of Appeal - but the damage has been done. And this is far from being an isolated case.
And then there is the fact that in many ways, despite the hard work and dedication of those working in child protection, much of what we currently do as a society barely scratches the surface. Just look at the numbers. As of March 2010, 46,705 children were subject to child protection plans or on child protection registers because they are thought to be at risk of harm.
And yet the NSPCC research study Child Cruelty in the UK 2011 found that 18.6% of 11 to 17-years-olds had been severely maltreated during childhood. In other words, the number of children being protected by the state is a tiny proportion of those who actually need protecting. Silently and unheard thousands of children are being abused and hurt and no one has noticed. Or if they have then they haven't let anyone know that they are worried.
The NSPCC Helpline service allows any adult who is worried about a child to contact the NSPCC anonymously with their concerns. Some contacts lead to advice and support being given or signposting to other local services. But after careful assessment, just under half of all contacts are considered so serious (21,000 in total) that a referral to the local social services or the police is made.
Over the past five years contacts to the NSPCC about abuse (neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse) have doubled overall. But people are still delaying letting others know about their concerns. And they delay because they are worried about whether they are right and about whether they will be taken seriously.
Take the case of Jessie. A distressed neighbour, who wished to remain anonymous, contacted the NSPCC to discuss issues and concerns she had about Jessie, aged nine. They had frequently heard Jessie's mother shouting awful things at her, such as, "you have spoilt my life" and "you are a useless, horrible girl".
They had been concerned for some time but had never felt able to do anything. But what finally made them put aside any doubt was when Jessie's mum locked Jessie out of the house until 10:30pm in the middle of winter for misbehaving. The caller went on to say she had noticed bruises on Jessie's face, arms and legs that she thought had been caused when her mother had hit her. The NSPCC contacted the local social services who quickly assessed the situation and took Jessie into the care of foster carers.
But Jessie had been made to wait for help. And for tens-of-thousands of children the wait will be longer with the abuse only ending when they grow up and leave home. So if you are a child today looking around you how will you feel in answer to the question 'is the welfare of children taken seriously?' Well, with our criminal justice system sending mixed messages and more children being abused and hurt than the systems designed to protect them can cope with, you would have every right to feel that the seriousness with which children's welfare is taken can be patchy.
But there are no easy answers here. Fundamentally the system of child protection needs to be reviewed so that it reflects the reality that the statutory agencies alone cannot possibly hope to identify and tackle the extent of harm actually happening to children. And each and every one of us has to decide that if we are worried about a child that we will not wait until we are certain. Because taking the safety of our children seriously should not be taken at face value.
If you are worried about a child, don't wait until you're certain. Call 0808 800 5000, text 88858 or visit www.nspcc.org.uk
Watch the new NSPCC campaign video here.
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