What would your child do if a stranger approached them? The experiment by ITV’s Daybreak last week sent chills through viewers who watched seven out of nine children walk away with a man asking for help finding his lost dog in a park. At the school gates, on the first week of term, my fellow mothers and I shook our heads in despair, horrified at how effective a ploy it was – a stark reminder of the innocence and vulnerability of our children.
I need no such reminder. I’ve spent the last few years investigating child abuse, including some of the most heinous crimes this country has ever seen; gangs who turn young girls into sex slaves. The headlines grabbed by these gangs as well as the Jimmy Savile case has, rightly, turned the spotlight on child sex abuse. However it has also distracted attention from something stressed to me regularly by organisations working with abused children: their abusers are mostly neither celebrities nor men lurking in sinister cars and parks but usually someone, of either gender, known to the child – a friend, a neighbour, a nanny or, often, a close relative.
I sat with three mothers this week, for a piece I’m writing about a charity called MOSAC which helps the non-abusing parents of sexually abused children. Their children were all molested by someone the mothers trusted; a partner , perhaps, or a grandfather. They sighed deeply when I mentioned the Daybreak experiment. “People can’t face it”, said one, “they’d rather see it as stranger-danger than someone close to home. It’s too scary.” Another added, “How can we warn our kids off everyone?”
MOSAC are now marking their 21st anniversary. It’s the only national charity which helps the parents of abused children and has had a huge increase in calls to their helpline this year. They say the general public still wants to believe the worst danger lies outside the home. A recent NSPCC campaign encourages parents to teach children as young as five about inappropriate adult attention. The Underwear Rule (PANTS) is highly commendable, and a long time coming in my view, but the message it also sends is that children have to protect themselves. It’s important to equip our children, yes, but our legal system has to step up.
Anyone who works with abused children; the police, social services and voluntary organisations know the difficulties of getting these cases to court. Evidence is scant and children, especially young and traumatised ones, are not strong witnesses. Sadly, paedophiles know this too and are aware of the legal difficulties. Very few cases are ever reported, fewer pass the legal threshold required to get to court, and even fewer result in successful convictions. The depressing and terrible truth is that until our justice system changes, and until we’re all prepared to face difficult facts, our children will remain more vulnerable than any Daybreak experiment could ever prove.