Who cares about children?

Deborah Orr Absolutely anybody can have a baby - that's the key reason why child abuse remains rife
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was still quite a young child I became baffled and fascinated by the fact that while one needed a licence to have a dog, anybody, absolutely anybody, could have a baby without seeking permission from any authority. This anomaly seemed utterly amazing to me, and I brooded on it for some years.

On the estate where I lived, dogs were often better looked after than children, while neglected children often took their spite out on dogs. (Perhaps they too resented the licenced status of man's best friend.) There seemed to me to be some kind of symbiotic relationship between the treatment of dogs and of children, which was underlined by the similarity in titles between the NSPCC and the RSPCA - the animal charity being the one which attracted royal approval of course.

I spent much time viewing the chaotic parenting and the pet pampering that I saw and wondering What Could Be Done About It? Eventually the dog licence was scrapped. This may not have helped children - or dogs - very much, but it certainly helped me. I felt that dogs and children were on a more equal bureaucratic footing, the world, in theory at least, was a little more sensible.

But the salient fact remains. Absolutely anybody can have a baby, and there's not a thing we can do about it. That seems to me the key reason why child abuse remains rife in our society, so I'm surprised by the NSPCC's claim that its new campaign, titled Cruelty To Children Must Stop, Full Stop, will make it possible for us to stamp out child abuse within 20 years.

The campaign coincides with the publication of a report from the charity, the most comprehensive investigation of child deaths yet undertaken. Called Out Of Sight, it reveals that more than 100 children are killed by their carers every year - 49 per cent by their father, stepfather, or the partner of their mother, 33 per cent by their mother, 4 per cent by their siblings and almost all of the rest by carers who are unrelated to the children.

Only four or five children are killed by strangers each year. Children are most at risk before the age of one, and 40 per cent die in this period. Another 20 per cent are killed between the ages of one and four while the rest occur between the ages of five and 15. Socially disadvantaged children, of course, are the most at risk.

The NSPCC campaign was launched last night in the modern way. The first of a series of shocking television adverts was screened, with the Spice Girls on a Smash Hits cover with their eyes hidden by their hands, drafted in to help alert us to the fact that some parents have sex with their children, then instruct them not to tell anybody. Further adverts highlight physical abuse and neglect, and feature Alan Shearer and Action Man, both again with their hands over their eyes. All the adverts run with the slug line: "We can't bear to look either." It seems incredible that there are still people out there who don't already know this, but perhaps there are. But is shock and sensation going to reach them, and to teach them?

The NSPCC's argument is that while people know intellectually about the existence of child abuse, they are unable to take their knowledge into the real world. Therefore they can have contact with children who are being abused and absolutely refuse to recognise this, however obvious it is. The campaign is designed to increase awareness and urges people to alert the authorities when they suspect that abuse is going on.

But while, in some cases, this perception is true, there are more widespread facts about the kind of society we live in that "we can't bear to look at", that indeed we all collude in hiding. The NSPCC's campaign bases itself on the idea that there are only two kinds of people, good people and evil people, and that if the good people band together they can drive out the evil people.

But the truth is more complicated, which is why this pounds 3m campaign will not achieve its objective. One of the most haunting aspects of the Fred and Rosemary West case was that over the years, hundreds, thousands of people must have known or suspected that dreadful things were happening within the West family.

Not only did many of these people not alert the authorities, they also embraced the chaos and anarchy around that household. They joined in with sex and with abuse, they borrowed home-made pornographic tapes and videos for their own use. They didn't fail to notice that something was wrong because their delicate little minds couldn't face the horror. They quite obviously knew that something was wrong and took advantage of it for their own gratification. So it must be in other cases of abuse. People do know and fail to disclose what they know for their own reasons.

Between good and evil there are many shades, but this is something we don't want to accept. While the Wests have been demonised as the monsters they were, shutting the door on their case, as though it has nothing more to teach us about the human condition and society, is not helpful to the child who will lose her life next week at the hands of her parents, or the children who are being sexually abused today.

But still we go on closing our eyes. The people we are busy demonising today, who have nothing to do with humanity, are children themselves. The public are furious that the European Commission of Human Rights has ruled that the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables may have been unfair. The attitude seems to be that these children are beyond the reach of humanity, and that nothing can be learned from the Bulger case.

But the Howard League for Penal Reform has just released a disturbing report which confirms what lawyers for the two boys have said about their own case. The report, to the United Nations, studies how Britain measures up to the standards laid down by The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed by the UK in 1991. The report states that "in the area of juvenile justice, the Government has failed to maintain some important protections and in some instances has positively undermined them".

The Howard League's main concerns include the increased used of custody for younger children, the removal of the legal doctrine of doli incapax (the child being too young fully to understand the rights and wrongs of what he has done), and the effective removal of the right to silence at trial and at the police station. The Howard League has also conducted an investigation of establishments holding children and found worrying levels of violence and self-harm in young offenders institutions, as well as widespread bullying and drug-taking. While Thompson and Venables are by all accounts well-treated in their secure environment, not all children are. Just because their crime was so dreadful, we shouldn't close our eyes to the idea that things can be learned from their experience of British justice.

We cannot stamp out child abuse in our society when it is institutionalised, and when in the most high-profile cases, we simply do not care about how these children may or may not have been treated. While we all should be vigilant, and help as much as we can when we suspect that a child is in trouble, there is no guarantee that everyone, armed with the right information, will take that course.

The idea that the ills of society can be stamped out by neighbourhood watches is idealistic and cruelly naive. Our troubles run much deeper and wider, and that is what we all need to face.

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