Anxieties grow, but figures provide reassurance

Jason Bennetto reports on the changing trends in child-death statistics
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The murder of three children at the weekend is seen by many, particularly parents, as further evidence that young people are no longer safe in Britain.

This fear has been increased by the daily diet of reports in the media about child killers and the abuse of youngsters.

However, the statistics reveal a different story. They show that in terms of child murder and manslaughter the United Kingdom is one of the safest places in the world.

The figures remained roughly stable between 1983 and 1993, with an average of 86.4 child homicides a year. The figures cover the murders and manslaughters of boys and girls under 16, as well as infanticides, in England and Wales.

The highest total during that 10-year period, 102, was recorded in 1985, with a low of 60 coming the following year. In 1993 - the last year for which the Home Office has complete figures - the total was 73, one less than the total of 74 recorded 10 years earlier. In 1974, there were 115 homicides.

Professor Colin Pritchard, of Southampton University's department of social work studies, believes these figures compare extremely favourably with those of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. "During this period we were among the worst in Western Europe for killing children. We are now have almost the lowest rate in the world, along with Japan. The huge improvements have been largely due to the better child protection services, greater awareness among the public, and the social services willingness to intervene at an earlier stage."

In addition although child-killers, such as Robert Black, who was given 10 life sentences for murdering three schoolgirls in the 1980s and the Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, grab the headlines most children are murdered by their parents.

Statistically children are most likely to be murdered in the early years of their lives. In 1993, there were 28 homicides among babies under one year, 29 homicides aged one to five and 16 deaths from five to 15.

Professor Pritchard said that the vast majority of the murders of children under five were by parents or relatives, adding: "The stranger who goes out and kills tends to have a severe sexual disorder, but that's extremely rare."

Killers of children in the older age group are divided among paedophiles, who will often befriend their victims before attacking them, young adults who have probably been abused themselves, and a small number of sadists and mentally ill people or psychopaths.

In a recent study, Dr Michael Levi, professor of criminology at the University of Wales in Cardiff, found that children face the greatest danger from men in their twenties and early thirties. He found that killers were often brought up in broken homes and, as adults, were usually unemployed. They were also often violent offenders and lived in poor areas.