Why fearmongering about child abuse helps no one

Dave Clements
Writer

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The NSPCC has claimed that child sexual abuse referrals have risen by nearly a third over a year.

In 2016-2017, the charity made an average of 90 referrals a week to the police and social services, as a consequence of 4,677 calls made by members of the public to the charity’s phone service, Childline. This was up from 3,578 the previous year.

The NSPCC’s dramatic announcement came after the Local Government Association (LGA) reported that around 500 child-protection inquiries have been started every day across England and Wales in recent years. In 2016 there were 172,290 inquiries, rising to 185,450 in 2017. The LGA warned of a ‘tipping point’, as local authorities struggle to cope with increasing demand while funding is cut. As a result of all of this, the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) has also complained of a ‘strain upon officers’.

However, when we look at actual intervention, the picture is somewhat different. The number of children subject to intervention by the authorities through a Child Protection Plan (CPP) has also been rising. Official figures from local authorities, provided by the NSPCC, show that CPPs have risen from 42,850 in 2012 to 50,310 in 2016. But, crucially, only five per cent of cases in 2012 related to instances of sexual abuse, falling to 4.8 per cent of cases in 2016. Neglect and emotional abuse were by far the most common categories of abuse dealt with by CPPs.

This disparity, between the large increase in referrals made by the NSPCC and a modest increase in suspected sexual abuse, is striking. Despite the increasing volume of referrals made by the NSPCC, there is no evidence to suggest that a third more children are being sexually abused. What’s more, the NSPCC also states that much of the abuse it deals with happens online. Of course, online child sexual abuse is serious and should be dealt with – but it is not the same as physical sexual abuse.

Nevertheless, the upward trend in NSPCC referrals is still taken as evidence that we’re in the midst of an epidemic of child abuse. The damage done to families who are unfairly treated with suspicion is regarded as a price worth paying in the pursuit of protecting children. But this relentless obsession with child sexual abuse is having a corrosive effect on families and communities. Instead of protecting children, the NSPCC is fuelling a moral panic which will divert resources away from tackling the rare, but serious, cases of child abuse that do occur.

Dave Clements is a writer, adviser to local government and founder of the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum.

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