Hands up if you are against child abuse? You are? Well that's good, nothing new there. And I suspect that that is how we would all respond if asked. Except unfortunately, the uncomfortable fact is that right now thousands of children and young people are being physically hurt, sexually or emotionally abused, or chronically neglected. So somehow, despite us all being against it, children are suffering.
I was reminded of this once again over Christmas. The NSPCC provides a service that allows anyone worried about a child to contact us anonymously and let us know their concerns. We can then take action to protect that child. So during the Christmas break, when we were all watching terrible TV, eating too much and opening presents, over 1000 people contacted the NSPCC worried about a child. Of these, nearly half - following careful assessment - were considered so serious that details of the concerns were passed to the local social services child protection teams and often to the police as well. On Christmas day itself NSPCC helpline counsellors were contacted about children suffering physical abuse, about children being put at harm by parents taking drugs, and about children where neighbours were worried about excessive and constant shouting at children.
Sadly, although tragic, none of this is surprising to the incredible group of NSPCC staff who deal with these issues day-in-and-day-out. Last year they dealt with nearly 40,000 contacts from those worried about a child with over 20,000 passed to local agencies for further action. Many of these concerns had not been reported to social services already.
Cases like the person who called to tell us about their neighbour's young children. For months they could hear shouting coming from next door. Shouting at the children, shouting at each other, thuds and children crying constantly. Not just loud but angry, aggressive shouting. The children were rarely seen and when they were, they were always subdued and always trying to hide new bruises. And the neighbour was worried, and it was getting worse, lasting longer. The crying seemed somehow shriller with each day that passed. They didn't know what to do and so they called the NSPCC.
Or the person who called about a child that they knew whose mum was always humiliating them. The child never seemed to be able to do anything right, was always in trouble, always being told that they were "stupid" and on one occasion "ugly." Either that or they were ignored. The child was withdrawn and didn't like playing with other children and just seemed unhappy and sad. The person who called was worried, didn't know what to do, and so they called the NSPCC.
And thank goodness that people do call, because these sorts of cases are not as rare as we would like to think. In 2011, the NSPCC published a report into the prevalence of child abuse in the UK. The report was a comprehensive attempt to answer the question - how often does abuse actually occur? The answer is that there is a substantial number of children and young people who are severely maltreated and experience abuse at home, in school and in the community, from adults and from peers.
To give one example, our research found that nearly one in five secondary school children in the UK had been severely abused or neglected in childhood: 18.6% of 11-17 year olds we questioned had been sexually attacked by an adult, sexually abused, or neglected at home. And here is the nub of the problem. There are 46,000 or so children in the UK on a child protection plan or child protection register and who are therefore known by social services to be at risk. A further 83,000 children in the UK, (0.5% of all children), are children in care. And yet the NSPCC's research suggests that 6% of 11-17 year olds actually suffered maltreatment by a parent or guardian in the last year.
So the harsh truth is, despite the hard work and dedication of those working within it, the child protection system is failing many children who desperately need help.
So why is this? What is going on? Well perhaps understandably people worry about reporting abuse. They might be concerned that they are mistaken. That they'll look ridiculous. Will reporting cause more harm than good? Will they themselves end up being dragged into the situation by reporting it? And anyway, once it's reported things might spiral out of control.
These are all reasonable concerns. But the impact of this is the continuing suffering of children who are being abused. And in case the word 'abuse' somehow sanitises the reality, we are talking about children regularly and repeatedly being hurt, kicked, punched, poisoned, humiliated, sexually abused, denied love, care, stimulation, medical treatment and food. The NSPCC, social services, and the police have highly trained and experienced people who can help. If in doubt, make the call, and let us decide what to do.
So we all need to recognise that if social services don't know, then they can't help. If no one tells them, the police, or the NSPCC, that there is a concern then the situation will continue. And we need to be expressing concerns sooner, not just waiting until we are absolutely sure or until the crisis happens. People who contact the NSPCC, for instance, tend to have been worried about the problem for several weeks, sometimes for months. Raising concerns sooner might very well mean that a crisis is prevented by the offer of help and support.
As well as a reluctance to report worries and concerns about children, there is a further threat to those children who are suffering and no one has yet noticed. Research from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy for the NSPCC, published in November, shows that on average the cuts to children's social care budgets, (England and Wales), are 24%. Some are as high as 40%. This compares to just a 10% reduction in overall local government spending. Public finances are of course under huge pressure. All of the main UK-wide political parties are now committed to reducing the deficit and believe that such action is necessary. No area of public spending is or should be immune.
But the child protection system was already failing a significant number of abused children. So government, central and local, should look very carefully at the impact of these cuts. Smart cuts should not just lop bits off budgets. Instead, they should involve a root and branch review of how we try to protect children better. Now is not the time for timidity. More spent on early intervention will lead to less demand later - and less cost. More support to struggling families will mean fewer families in crisis - and less cost. And making it even easier for people to report their concerns will mean less children being left to suffer alone.
Because we're all against child abuse, aren't we? So we have to hope that more people will notice what's going on around us, that governments will ensure the impact of these cuts doesn't mean even more children will suffer in silence, and that we can reach and support children who are stuck in a living hell, to help build a life free from fear and danger. If you are worried about that child then let the NSPCC know by calling 0808 800 5000 or by texting text 88858, or visit nspcc.org.uk/helpline.
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