Can everyone please calm down about child abuse?

Yes, Savile's crimes were horrible. But let's not spread fear by imagining child abuse to be widespread.

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Jimmy Savile was a repulsive individual who indulged in vile, degraded, abusive acts.

On that we can all agree. But what is less a matter of consensus is how we should respond to the scandal. When I argued on Newsnight this week that we need some calm reflection and that the whole of society should not be reorganised around child protection, it started a minor Twitchunt, and I have been accused of everything from being a BBC stooge to a callous apologist for paedophilia.

While I am fair game, more worrying is the way, when it comes to difficult, sensitive issues, especially involving children, opposition to a prevailing and escalating panic is stifled. Woe betide anyone who argues that the actions of one monstrously behaved children’s entertainer reflect a widespread culture of child abuse or that they should be the basis on which we tear down every institution. Surely only a monster could oppose policies designed to protect children from abuse? Yet the highly emotive issue of child abuse has, over recent years, led to a variety of unhealthy and draconian laws, the inflation of risk in society and the creation of misanthropic intergenerational mistrust. We should be wary of rushing headlong into more of the same.

We might want to take a deep breath before endorsing the calls for mandatory reporting or David Cameron’s announcement that authorities be alerted where there are “concerns” (but not enough proof to prosecute), under the auspices of “something must be done”. This could result in a dangerous abuse of the rule of law and an invitation to the criminal justice system to treat rumour as fact.

If we insist, as some do in the wake of Savile, that all allegations have to be acted on because all victims must be believed, how then to distinguish between malevolent false accusations from those which can stand the test of evidence and jury? What safeguards for the innocent adult subject to malicious allegations? As many teachers know to their cost, the threat of “I’ll say you touched me” can have a chilling effect. And for those who seem to believe that over-reaction to child-abuse accusations is never a danger, let’s not forget that in the late 1980s, hundreds of children in Cleveland, Orkney and Nottingham were forcibly removed and put in homes or foster care after sexual abuse “experts” believed they were being ritualistically raped by a Satanist paedophile ring. All proved untrue, and parents were vindicated, but only after being branded with the most abhorrent labels, exonerated but forever tainted.

In truth, many child protection instruments actually fuel mistrust, and add to already over-burdened services. While it might be tempting for children’s charities and services to use the Savile scandal to indulge in some special-pleading against public sector cuts because child abuse is everywhere, they should be nervous about the consequences of over-inflating such claims. Reorganising services around a heightened sense of child protection has already proven damaging over recent years.

The state’s response to the tragic murder of eight year-old Victoria Climbie by her great-aunt and partner, was the total reorganisation of Child Protection from a targeted service aimed at a small group of children “at risk of significant harm”, to making ALL services relating to ALL children adopt child safety as a central concern.  Ironically, this expanded role has put child protection services under huge strain, with many social workers complaining that victims of specific abuse have been lost  as they have been merged with all other groups of children in need.

Post-Savile, we see this bandwagon tendency: already commentators elide victims of rape with everything from “victims” of workplace harassment to inappropriate sexual language; Kerry Katona claims she was a victim because Savile looked at her “in a pervy way”.

The “something must be done” approach also led to the introduction of widespread CRB checks for all adults who work with children after the Soham murders of 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by a school caretaker. Not only has this regime of state-vetting of adults been recognised as undermining and demonising volunteers, teachers, lollipop ladies, sports coaches etc, as well as being a bureaucratic nightmare, they are also unhelpful in stopping abuse. After all, they would have been ineffective in highlighting Ian Huntley or indeed Jimmy Savile.

Most significantly, CRB checks have embodied the way that society is already far too preoccupied with mistrusting adult – child relationships.  The argument that Savile is typical, that child-abuse if rife, that your friendly family entertainer or hospital charity worker could well be a predator, that Joey the Clown is as likely to be a child-rapist as a fun guy, is profoundly problematic.

Post Savile, let us avoid deepening this atmosphere of suspicion with endless fear-fuelled inquires and regulations which can only encourage paranoia, often at the children’s expense. It will mean even more examples of adults who work with children being wary of indulging in normal, compassionate nurturing and caring such as comforting an upset child, giving a cuddle or putting on a plaster. This stand-off between adults, eyeing each other with suspicion as potential threats to children, dangerously threatens the sense of adult solidarity and partnership that’s so necessary to socialising and indeed protecting children. Surely it is tragic that adults feel awkward and impotent when they see a child in trouble, believing that attempts to reassure a distraught youngster could be misinterpreted as suspicious? Worse, by encouraging children to look at affection shown to them by adults with suspicion will inevitably poison relationships between adults and young people for many years to come.

Children have always been anxious and frightened by shadows and bogeymen. Traditionally adults’ role is to confront these irrational fears and reassure. What is novel today is the way that too many adults are institutionalising these fears as though they are real.  Savile is dead, but we risk using his ghost to magnify these fears out of all proportion.  We owe it to the young, and each other, to challenge this particular ‘panic attack’ before it does any more damage.

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