Why do we still ignore the screams of abused children?

There is a child I know who I feel is being abused, but I have sat on my conscience for months
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The Independent Culture
CHILDREN ARE much better off than they were a century ago. They are seen and heard, especially when they have cuts and bruises on their bodies, and they scream with pain and confusion as the people they love and trust abuse them. Only, it seems, far too many of us prefer to ignore these sights and sounds, and carry on regardless.

It's time to sober up. Babies in Britain are more likely to be killed today than 10 years ago. Those under the age of 12 months are five times more likely to end up murdered than those in other age groups. Between April 1997 and March 1998, 82 children were killed by adult abusers. They were beaten to death, starved, strangled, suffocated or tortured to death. This week Professor Sir Roy Meadows, of the Leeds Infirmary, said that, in his view, that number could be even higher because murdered babies are sometimes misdiagnosed as cot death cases. And, as general homicide rates continue to rise, the potential danger to children increases year by year.

The number of murders in Britain, according to newly released Home Office figures, has more than doubled since the mid-Sixties, with 1995 being the worst year so far. These figures were released at the same time as an National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) research report indicating that too many people take no action for months, even years after they become aware of the possibility that a child they know may be at risk.

The research was carried out between 14 and 20 December when calls to the NSPCC helpline were analysed. Of the 173 calls which were considered serious by experts, only 25 per cent were made by people within 24 hours of the caller's first having concerns. Almost one in four of the callers had waited six months, and one in seven had waited a year, before making that vital call.

Asked why they had not reported their concerns earlier, fear of reprisal was the main reason given. Others said that they were unsure of how serious the situation was, or initially did not want to get involved. Evidence from inquiries into child killings shows clearly that there are always signs of cruelty and neglect suffered by victims before their death. As long as we have such "silent witnesses", as the NSPCC calls them, frightened, suffering children will continue to be victims, and some will die as a result.

Those who do take action are not heroic. They are no different from you or me, except that they are social beings whose instincts to protect the next generation prevail more strongly over that other instinct for pure self-preservation. When people say that they are afraid of reprisals, what exactly are they scared of? Of not being able to borrow a cup of sugar? Of paint on the car? Of screams and insults across the well maintained fences? Of physical attacks in dark corridors of housing estates? Some of these are real dangers, others are not. A realistic assessment, maybe with the help of the police or one of the child protection agencies, might release some people from their own sense of vulnerability. Most ordinary people remain unaware of the impressive standards of confidentiality and sensitivity that permeate child protection work.

But maybe the fears go deeper. One case in the NSPCC dossier is that of a mother who waited 12 months before talking about her suspicion that her ex-husband was sexually abusing her five-year-old daughter. She may have been afraid of him, but could it also be that, like so many of us, she was loth to accept how foul human beings can be towards their own children? We feel safer in a world where the only villains are strangers in the woods who spirit away our innocent young and deliver them back dead. We recoil from the reality that greater dangers lie not with those strangers we have taught the dears not to trust, but those from whom they happily and rightly expect sweets.

Over the years, the excitable public responses to the investigations of widespread abuse of children by their families indicate how unprepared we are to deal with the realities. The journalist Bea Campbell has written compellingly about the effects of this hysterical need not to know, and how the conspiracy of ignorance is maintained. The truth of what happened in Cleveland and other well publicised cases of mass abuse has been buried away because such facts, properly acknowledged, would send us mad. Perhaps these are our own 20th-century sacrifices. We quietly allow a few children to be physically and psychologically destroyed in order to keep good all those myths, fairy tales and magic for the rest.

There are social impediments to getting involved, too, none of which have anything to do with people being selfish or indifferent. There is that tacit agreement among people that the home is a private kingdom and that parents have ownership rights over those they have brought into the world.

The privatisation of family life has probably been one of the most damaging effects of urbanisation and the break-up of communities that has occurred over the past three centuries. Children should belong to a society - by which I don't mean the confiscation policies once rife in Communist countries, but in the sense that the wellbeing and development of every child should be an inescapable joint responsibility. In Africa they say it takes a village to raise a child. Hillary Clinton is so impressed with this simple truth that she has been promoting the idea all around the United States, when she talks about health and welfare. If we learn to accept this idea, we shall more easily interfere with the way parents are treating their offspring.

It must be terrible to be falsely accused of hurting your children. But that is a price we should all agree to pay to safeguard the nation's children. I would feel better knowing that my children were protected from me if I ever maltreated them because there are strangers who would take the risk of offending me in order to protect my young. I am about to take that risk myself. There is a child we vaguely know who I feel is being abused. I have sat on my conscience for seven months. I will make that phone call today.