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8 March 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

NSPCC report: a picture of innocence?
The report on 'Child maltreatment in the UK' by a major UK children's charity shows that family life is not the abusive nightmare it is often presented to be. So why won't it challenge society's preoccupation with child abuse?

by Stuart Waiton

This year started as last year ended: with society's obsession with child sexual abuse on an ever-upward spiral.

The year 2000 began with news of a 10-year-old boy being placed on the sexual offenders register for touching a younger girl's genitals. The summer months were taken over by news of the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, and the subsequent campaign to rid housing estates of paedophiles. By the end of 2000, the UK government was attempting to resolve the 'adoption crisis' - where thousands of kids wanted to be adopted by thousands of families who wanted to adopt them, but councils and social work departments were afraid to allow it, at least in part due to concerns about how to guarantee that the families would not abuse these children.

So with the publication of a piece of research, described by one national UK newspaper as 'the most comprehensive survey of child abuse so far in the UK' (1), can we now put in perspective the widespread notion that child abuse is all around us? At first sight, it would seem that we can.

'Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom', published in November 2000 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), questions the widespread perception that a large proportion of families - especially working-class families - are abusive. The report points out that over 90 percent of families are loving and caring, and that the difference between working-class and middle-class families, in terms of abuse, is relatively minor (2).

The report also challenges the belief, held by many social workers and child protection professionals, that the 'high risk' sexual abusers in the family are fathers, and especially stepfathers. 'Child Maltreatment in the UK' points out that the level of abuse among fathers and stepfathers combined is only 0.4 percent - and that slightly more natural fathers than stepfathers abuse children. (The definition for sexual abuse here, as well as including intercourse, also includes touching, hugging or kissing in a sexual way and the exposure of sexual organs.) (3) Interestingly, despite the current concern with what is seen as a violent macho culture among men, the NSPCC report shows that fathers are 'less violent' than mothers in their disciplining of children.

Even though the weeks following Sarah Payne's murder in July 2000 were dominated by fears about paedophiles on the prowl, the NSPCC's research also found that sexual acts between strangers and children were extremely rare, and (with the exception of exposure) were carried out by men and women in equal numbers. (As well as forced acts, this category also included consensual sexual acts with anybody five or more years older than the respondent when the respondent was under the age of 16. The report recognised that some of these sexual acts might not be seen as abusive by some - for example, if a 14-year old had consented to sex with a 19-year old.)

With police checks, social work reports, sexual offenders lists and vetting procedures generally developing across council workplaces and voluntary organisations who deal with children, it was interesting to note that, of the 2869 respondents to the NSPCC's study, none had been sexually abused in any way by a social or care worker; none had been abused by a priest or religious leader; and only nine respondents, 0.3 percent of the sample, had been sexually abused by a teacher. (Again, these figures include consensual sexual acts with anybody five or more years older than the respondent when the respondent was under the age of 16.) Part of the reason for this low figure may be that respondents might have had little contact with care workers and priests, although clearly all would have had a lot of contact with teachers.

Addressing the issue of disciplinarian families, the NSPCC report shows that freedom of expression within families is extremely high. Only two percent of respondents said they had no freedom to express their views or have them considered by their parents; one percent said they had no freedom to think and believe in what they wanted regarding, for example, politics or religion; and less than one percent said they had no freedom to meet and mix with other people.

Continuing on this theme, and despite this rather leading question - 'In the past many people found it too embarrassing to talk about sex to young people....How easy did you find it to talk to your parents about sex?' - only 16 percent said they found it very difficult. This figure provides some challenge to the image promoted by the UK government of fuddy-duddy parents, who need parenting classes to help them loosen up and talk to their kids.

The issue of what is and is not abuse is often largely definitional
Even when it comes to the currently controversial issue of whether smacking children should be considered a form of abuse, the report labels as 'questionable' the notion that smacking is part of a continuum of violence which can lead to serious abuse. The report claims that its data suggests 'a qualitative difference between the use of occasional slaps or smacks with an open hand, and violent treatment by parents, rated as seriously abusive because it caused injury or regularly had lasting physical effects' (4).

In all these findings, the NSPCC report seems to confirm that family life and childhood is, for the vast majority of children, anything but the abusive nightmare it is often presented to be. But this report did not lead to a call to re-examine the growing vetting of all who work with children, or a challenge to the generalised suspicion of men, which is likely to result in male primary or nursery teachers fast becoming a dying breed. The study will not mean an end to the 'stranger danger' awareness campaigns given to children in every school in the UK, and has not resulted in the NSPCC dropping its idea of child-only parks that allow adults in 'only if accompanied by a child'. Nor, I imagine, will it change the campaigns currently run by many children's charities and organisations calling for a law against smacking.

Why won't this report challenge any of these fears? Quite simply, because it was carried out by the NSPCC: an organisation that appears to spend most of its time trying to convince parents that it is not safe for our children to step outside - or even inside - their own front door. For this organisation to debunk the idea that all our children are at risk of being abused would be like the emperor admitting that he had no clothes.

If a myth was challenged in the report 'Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom', it was highlighted only to emphasise the gravity of a different danger facing children, and the need for further professional intervention and support to prevent further abuse. So for example, the findings that social class did not make so much difference to the rate of abuse as is often assumed only led to the conclusion that middle-class families are more abusive than had previously been imagined, and that they should receive more attention from social workers.

Despite this report's finding that the incidence of child abuse seemed to be lower than many past pieces of research have claimed, and certainly lower than is often assumed by child experts and professionals, the NSPCC continued with their Happy Xmas campaign, which informed us that child abuse is all around us. And while the report concluded that the vast majority of children are not living in an abusive family, its authors emphasised that seven percent of children are seriously physically abused by their parents, and six percent are emotionally abused.

The NSPCC report is not only a highly detailed study of abuse experienced by the 2869 18 to 24-year olds in the survey. It also gives a useful overview of research on this subject from Europe and the USA. However, as the researchers for the report point out throughout, the issue of what is and is not abuse is often largely definitional and open to interpretation, depending on cultural differences and age differences. It is specifically dependent upon the methodology of researchers looking at these issues. (One study, for example, found that depending on research methods, emotional abuse has been seen to affect between 0.69 percent and 25.7 percent of the population.)

Even though the report shows the incidence of child abuse to be fairly low, these figures are questionable, as they are based on categories defined by the researchers and measurements of these categories which - as the report recognises - are often arbitrary.

The NSPCC report attempts to be scientific, in terms of categorising abuse by the type of treatment, its severity and its regularity. For example, the report classifies 'serious physical abuse', 'intermediate abuse' and 'cause for concern' by using such formulations as 'being hit on the bottom with a hard implement'. The kind of behaviour that falls into these categories would no doubt upset many good, loving parents. This is especially true for the category 'emotional abuse', which includes acts that most people would find entirely unexceptional.

The categories of emotional abuse within the report range from 'psychological controls', which include factors like 'mother unpredictable', through to 'proxy attacks', which include 'parent got rid of your pet'. Other categories include 'psycho/physical control and domination', for example 'mouth washed out with soap' (I can feel my mother cringing); 'humiliation', for example 'shouted or screamed at regularly over the years' (at least once a week - is this regular enough?); 'withdrawal', for example 'given too little attention as a child'; 'antipathy', for example 'father disliked you' (yep); and finally 'terrorising', for example 'sometimes really afraid of father/mother' (especially after I had burned down the corn field).

Questions in the emotional abuse category include 'have you been called lazy or stupid by your mother?'
With questions in the emotional abuse category like 'have you been called lazy or stupid over the years by your mother?', one gets the impression that it is not only the level of parental discipline that is being scrutinised in this report. So is the amount of pressure that parents put on their children to do their homework or tidy their bedroom. And by creating tick-box categories of physical and emotional abuse in this way, the report loses any sense of the personal and family circumstances which relate to the treatment of children. The term 'child maltreatment' becomes so confused as to be almost meaningless.

Being hit on the bottom with a hard implement, for example, is one of a number of physical abuse categories that appear alongside being 'burned or scalded on purpose'. But are they really equally bad? Using a hard implement on a child's backside may be a form of discipline, or it may be done purely out of spite and cruelty. The NSPCC report assumed that, regardless of what the child has done and regardless of the reasons for the severity of the punishment, a child may be being abused. But surely a child who constantly misbehaves and is constantly punished for his actions is different from a child who never misbehaves and is regularly hurt by a parent, out of spite and malice.

The NSPCC, an organisation whose mission is attempting to prevent cruelty to children, seems to have lost sight of what cruelty is. Child cruelty - a malicious, dehumanising, sadistic act - should not be acceptable to society. But whether an act is cruel or not can often only be fully understood by examining the intention of the adult who is punishing the child. By blurring the distinction between well-intentioned discipline and abuse, the NSPCC risks losing its ability to distinguish between truly cruel parents and those who simply do not comply with a child expert's tick-list of correct behaviour.

Another worrying feature of the child maltreatment report is not only that the NSPCC has lost sight of what cruelty is. This children's charity also seems to have lost sight of what it means to be a child.

Having found relatively low levels of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) by adults, an NSPCC press release explained that, in fact, the main sexual abusers were children themselves. This was the main focus of the press coverage greeting the report, with headlines like 'One in 10 teenagers is victim of violent sex' (Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2000) and 'Sibling sex abuse danger' (Scotsman, 20 November 2000).

The press release laid to rest a number of popular myths about child abuse, such as 'most sex abuse occurs between father and daughter', and 'adults are responsible for most sexual violence against children and young people outside the home'. It debunked these myths with a series of counter-assertions: that 'the most likely relative to abuse within the family is a brother or stepbrother', and 'children are most likely to be forced into unwanted sexual activity by other young people, most usually from someone described as a boyfriend'.

Yet even if the survey's respondents cited brothers as the family member most often involved in sexual acts within the family, the child maltreatment report itself notes that the 'very small' numbers involved in these activities must be borne in mind when assessing these results. Unfortunately, this was not the impression given by the NSPCC's panic press release and the consequent shock-horror headlines.

When examining 'sexual abuse' among other children, the definition for sexual abuse not only includes intercourse, but also includes touching, hugging or kissing in a sexual way, the exposure of sexual organs, and being shown pornography (5). Parents might be concerned about all this behaviour among their children, but there is a clear difference between siblings having sex and siblings showing each other pornography.

More importantly, the actions of a 13-year-old boy in relation to his 11-year-old sister cannot and should not be seen as comparable to the actions of a 30-year-old man. Nor should it be assumed, as it is by NSPCC director Mary Marsh, that 'such behaviour [by children] can only damage the development of her or his sexual and emotional relationships'. Siblings have flashed their genitals at each other for decades, without experiencing any lasting damage. That this behaviour is put under the media spotlight, and discussed as dirty and damaging, could have a far more negative impact on children than what used to be called 'messing about'.

The NSPCC's failure to distinguish between children and adults, and the loss of any clear analysis of intent within the actions of sexual abusers, equates the clumsy immature fumblings of children and adolescents with the actions of rapists and perverts. And when they see the next 10-year olds put on the sexual offenders register for playing doctors and nurses, we can only expect this children's charity to applaud. What 'cruelty' is the NSPCC preventing which children from, exactly?

Stuart Waiton is the author of Scared of the Kids: Curfews, Crime and the Regulation of Young People, Sheffield Hallam University Press, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)), and a contributor to Teenage Sex: What Should Schools Teach Children?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

(1) Guardian 20 November 2000

(2) 'Child Maltreatment in the UK', NSPCC, November 2000, p104

(3) 'Child Maltreatment in the UK', NSPCC, November 2000, p80

(4) 'Child Maltreatment in the UK', NSPCC, November 2000, p97

(5) 'Child Maltreatment in the UK', NSPCC, November 2000, p80

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