Child abuse 'as high as 20 years ago': NSPCC urges a radical review of protection system, with emphasis on prevention. Nicholas Timmins reports

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The Independent Online
THE NATIONAL Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is to launch an inquiry into the prevention of child abuse, claiming that despite 20 years of legislative change the rate of child deaths and abuse has not dropped.

About 180 children a year still die of abuse and neglect, the society said, despite 186,000 investigations into reports of abuse last year.

However, the society's claims were rejected by Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, who said the 'radical review' that the NSPCC wanted was not needed.

'Our system is well established and internationally recognised and we do believe it has reduced the numbers of deaths,' Mrs Bottomley said.

Since the 1989 Children Act and improved working with families, 'the number of children on child protection registers, the number of children on emergency orders and the number of children subject to care orders have all declined'.

The society admits its figure of three to four children a week dying of abuse and neglect is an estimate based on deaths over a 17-year period in 1974-90.

The society hopes the national commission of inquiry that it intends to set up will recommend improvements in prevention in its broadest sense - moves that Eileen Hayes, the society's child abuse protection adviser, said could take it into issues such as unemployment, housing and income as well as education for parents and parenthood.

A 'radical review' was needed of a child protection system which has concentrated resources on children in need of urgent protection, but has not offered enough prevention or family support, the society said.

As a result, 'children and families are being drawn into child protection procedures unnecessarily. This is unproductive and can be traumatic. An estimated 186,000 investigations took place last year of which only one in seven resulted in the child's name being placed on the child protection register.' One outcome is that people are afraid to become involved with 'the system' and some are reluctant to report concerns about a child.

Christopher Brown, the society's director, said the Government had shown it could alter public attitudes by drink-driving, seat-belt, drugs and Aids campaigns and should now consider good parenting campaigns. He added that it was also 'no good the wider public complaining one day about social workers being busy-bodies who are snatching children away and at the next complaining that they were asleep while a child died'.

The Association of Directors of Social Services, however, protested yesterday that its members had not been consulted about the planned 'national commission' when their departments provided 99 per cent of child protection work.