It is time to stop violence against children

Violence against women and sexual abuse are rightly highlighted. But where is the anger over violence against children?

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The Independent Online

A powerful man of some status and good reputation commits assault – grabbing his victim roughly around the throat after an argument. The deed is caught on camera and he is arrested for assault.

In Kent, a violent domestic abuser walks free from court with a suspended sentence after using a hot iron to assault a vulnerable, helpless victim. 

Are these two more examples of the everyday violence against women that permeates our society? No. Not this time. The assailant in the first case was police sergeant Steven Rea who lost his temper with a 14 year-old boy, picked him up by the throat and dragged him into a cell. He was given a conditional discharge. The offender in Kent was a mother, who walked free from court despite having a previous caution for assaulting her nine year-old son so severely he needed three stitches in his head.

To those cases we could add the gut-wrenching descriptions of child neglect and abuse perpetrated by a South Wales heroin addict upon her three young children, starving them, criminalizing them and neglecting them in the most awful ways. Verdict: guilty. Sentence: suspended. 

I do not write to call for draconian custodial sentences upon any of the offenders here. I’m firmly of the view that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse and is rarely the best response. However it does concern me how little attention such cases generate, both in mainstream media and social media. 

You may easily have missed it, but a murder trial is currently running against the mother and stepfather of four year-old Daniel Petka. The horrific details are generating scant attention in the national media.

Our society has to a certain extent awoken to the horror of violence against women and sexual abuse. While of course the vast majority of cases of sexual and domestic violence never trouble national newsdesks, there are always campaigning efforts or high profile cases keeping awareness of the issues alive. There are extensive efforts to provide teaching time and resources to educating on violence against women and girls, no equivalent focus on violence against children, far less gender-specific violence against men and boys.

And yet the issues are fundamentally related. There is no linear route from abused to abuser, many victims of violence and abuse will grow into caring and loving adults. Past trauma never excuses personal responsibility, but it almost invariably leaves scars, visible or not. Many victims of abuse will channel their trauma in to self-harm and self-medication with drugs or alcohol, struggle with emotional wellbeing and mental health, others will direct their anger outward into anti-social behaviour, crime and violence. One study found that a child who both experiences and witnesses adult violence first hand is seven times as likely to grow up to commit domestic abuse as other children.

Our attitudes towards violence against children lag roughly 40 years behind our attitudes on violence against women. Adults are legally permitted to use “reasonable” physical violence as a punishment for disobedience, just as husbands once were to wives. Most violence against children occurs behind closed doors and, providing it doesn’t cross a line into abject horror, is considered to be a private affair – in exactly the same way as domestic violence was once written off as ‘just a domestic.’ I do not doubt that the reaction of some readers to this story, describing a violent act committed against supposedly obstreperous, impertinent and (quite probably) obnoxious teenager, will be along the lines of “the little bastard got what he deserved.” That is a large part of the problem. Violence as a rebuke, a punishment or a reaction is never deserved and rarely harmless.

Research on the true extent of serious abuse of children is fraught with difficulties, but most of it suggests that children’s risks of facing serious maltreatment in the home are at least comparable to those faced by adult women, and may be higher. And that is before we include the violence meted out between children. According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, children aged 10-15 are more than twice as likely to be a victim of violent crime as an adult male, and four times as likely as an adult woman. There is also good news. A 2011 study by the NSPCC found that the prevalence of physical violence reported had declined from 13.1 to 9.8 per cent in the previous 10 years. 

Progress is possible, and much has already been made. If we wish to free our society from the scourge of violence and abuse in all forms, the time has come for our culture and our politicians to send a clear message that inflicting violence on children can never be justified, excused or ignored.