A needle in a haystack

Today’s blanket suspicion of what happens ‘behind closed doors’ makes it harder to spot real cases of abuse.

Ken McLaughlin

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Topics Politics

With each passing day, the case of Baby P seems to grow in both public and political importance. Newspaper coverage continues to be widespread and sensational; radio and television programmes discuss the issues in detail; and politicians have seized on the tragedy to try to assert their political credentials. Baby P’s death is certainly a tragedy, and hopefully lessons will be learned to minimise the chances of such a thing happening again. At the moment, however, any semblance of clear analysis is conspicuous by its absence.

Emotions are running high. The Sun newspaper has started a petition calling for all the professionals involved in Baby P’s case to be sacked. Unsurprisingly, this witch-hunt has provoked strong reaction, with the Social Work Action Network publishing a statement condemning the Sun’s actions (1). Such emotive outbursts are not confined to the tabloids. In several radio discussions, commentators have been close to tears.

It is understandable that we feel shocked and angry in the face of such a tragedy. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are two debates taking place here: one about the circumstances of a baby’s death, the other a morality tale arising from the desire for certainty in a confusing and anxious age. While we can agree on little else these days, we can at least all be outraged by the senseless death of a child at the hands of what columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown describes as members of a ‘feral class’ who are ‘bestial and useless’ (2). Here, an individual tragedy gives rise to a deeper concern over some more malign social malaise. Indeed, it is remarkable how soon the discussion around Baby P moved from one concerned with the individual perpetrators and professionals involved to one in which a whole section of society is implicated.

According to Alibhai-Brown (herself close to tears on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show), part of the problem in cases such as Baby P’s is that the state panders to parents; by fetishising the family, we have in effect privatised parenting and inadvertently left vulnerable children unprotected. From this perspective, the government has failed children by withdrawing from family life, leaving them and their parents to negotiate life without state guidance (3).

This analysis is flawed. The state has an ambivalent attitude to the family. It pays lip service to the sanctity of the family as a valuable institution, but it also has a real disdain for parents’ ability to bring up their children without state guidance and surveillance.

Parents are no longer trusted to put ‘appropriate’ food in their child’s lunchbox, to differentiate between a smack and an assault, or to decide at what time their children should be back home from playing outside. The advent of government measures such as child curfews has in effect given the police the power to decide when children should be off the streets. This has not only failed to reduce adult anxiety; it has reduced the family and local communities to passive residents within their own neighbourhoods. Adult/child relationships are increasingly mediated and undermined by state representatives (4).

Relationships between adults are also viewed suspiciously. In fact, it is striking how many radical sentiments of yesteryear are implicit in government policy documents. For example, while few today would subscribe to the radical feminist viewpoint that all heterosexual sex equates to rape, the belief that relationships are inherently abusive is a guiding principle behind many government pronouncements – for example, that midwives should routinely ask pregnant women whether their partner is abusing them.

The state’s encroachment into both community and family life is based on its contempt for both. Viewing us as an abusive and abused mass, the state adopts initiatives that increase public anxiety and give the impression that abuse is everywhere. For instance, the exponential expansion of criminal records checks for everyone who works with ‘vulnerable people’ is not only a huge waste of valuable resources, it also reinforces the idea that everyone, even those volunteering to help, must be viewed with suspicion.

This scattergun approach to the protection of the vulnerable undermines community trust and social cohesion, and it has a detrimental effect on professionals whose job it is to protect those who really are at risk. For example, after the case of Victoria Climbié (the eight-year-old killed by her guardians, also in Haringey, in 2000) and the changes implemented under the banner of Every Child Matters, the number of children ‘of interest’ to child protection services rose from around 100,000 to four million, as a result of shifting definitions and a desire to not miss any signs of alleged abuse. As Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, pointed out in a TV debate last night, ‘If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack [serious abuse], then you are going to make things much harder by making the haystack even bigger’ (5).

In short, if we are encouraged to see abuse everywhere, we not only waste valuable resources – we also lose the ability to focus on those areas where suspicion and scrutiny are indeed warranted.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. His book Social Work, Politics and Society: From Radicalism to Orthodoxy is published by Policy Press.

Why moral opportunists are exploiting this tragedy, by Frank Furedi

Dead baby porn, by Brendan O’Neill

Is it P for ‘prole’?, by Tim Black

Don’t turn this tragedy into policy, by Jennie Bristow

Read more at spiked issue: Baby P.

(1) Social Work Action Network

(2) The state panders to parents, but not all families are safe, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Independent, 17 November 2008

(3) The state panders to parents, but not all families are safe, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Independent, 17 November 2008

(4) See Scared of the Kids by Stuart Waiton, Abertay University Press, 2008.

(5) BBC Panorama, 17 November 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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