Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The state panders to parents, but not all families are safe

The only people in the country who can still be lawfully hit are children
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The Independent Online

Startling and telling was Gordon Brown's response to the tragic death of the blue-eyed, beautiful Baby P: "I'm determined to do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen again ... Every family needs to know their children are safe at night."

Pardon? Did you really say that Sir? His mother was an accomplice – she who should have been his most fierce protector. It was within the family enclosure that he was battered and broken. As in other such filicide cases, one malevolent enemy was his flesh and blood. Many more young children are brutally treated by their own behind closed doors where domestic dungeons provide sanctuary only for the perpetrators.

Millions of families are units of co-operation, mutuality, care and love. It is never easy but they are able to nurture their young. I salute them, at times envy them.

Prominent writers recently debated Philip Larkin's stark poem damning parents, which observes: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." Not at all, said A N Wilson and a host of writers who penned lyrical tributes to those who made them, but I disagree.

The children's writer Anne Fine has said of home life: "It is a crucible of security as well as the crucible of misery." Families can beat you up, cut you down, mess you up, drive you mad, crush your body and spirit. Baby P came from what they call the "feral class", bestial and useless. Shannon Matthews' mum, Karen, accused of kidnapping her own daughter, is again described as a low-bred, no good.

True, the most gruesome cases seem to involve the least educated. But child cruelty crosses the classes. Tonight on BBC4, the Storyville programme "I'm not Dead Yet" exposes the abuse inflicted in an upper-middle class family. The victim, now old, never complained because to do so would shame and divide them. Last year, a man I vaguely knew committed suicide after his 18-year-old daughter accused him of raping her over several years. He was a company director. Families do indeed "fuck you up".

But still we fetishise the institution, give it ever more power over its members, more since right-wing orthodoxies have taken root on the left. David Cameron believes parents know what is best for their kids. Mr and Mrs Common Sense tell the nanny state to keep out. Parenting has been privatised along with much else. That leaves vulnerable children unprotected.

Mine was, in many ways, a frighteningly dysfunctional family. Volatility and violence blew up regularly, much of it senseless and unpredictable. My mum and the kindness of strangers saved me from mental and emotional collapse. On really bad days I took refuge in one of the adjoining flats or a friend's house. My teachers stepped in when they felt I wasn't coping. Then and there, back in Kampala, Uganda, the external network could interfere to save a child. Here and now, that would be almost criminal intrusion. Even among British Asians, where communal responsibility used to guard a child, parental control has grown grotesquely. Too many girls and boys are forced into behaviours that stunt personal development.

In recent years, effective campaigns have been raised against medical professionals, social workers and police officers who suspect parental brutality. I do not doubt that real abuse has been left to carry on as a result. Not upsetting parents became the credo and children's rights were demoted. Parental power can deny pupils a holistic education. Many pupils cannot join trips, wear ordinary school uniforms, read novels, do drama, study evolution or human procreation. Last year, a Unicef report on the well-being of children placed Britain at the bottom of the league of advanced nations. There is still, in the UK, no outright ban on corporal punishment. The children's commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, points out: "The only people in the country who can still be lawfully hit are children."

Social workers and police take their cue from these societal values and now seek only to "support" parents. This is what happened in Haringey. As if supporting brutes will turn them into repentant angels. Taking girls and boys away from their parents can give some the only chance they have. One researcher found that 96 per cent of kids in care were happy with their foster carers. Even if the worst parents were themselves victims of deprivation, they cannot be the primary concern if we want children to be safe.

A recent study at Southbank University found that by using sophisticated methodology, through an analysis of the personal and family circumstances of a child, it is possible to predict which young ones are at risk. We know, but don't want to know. Why not? That is the question – and the real scandal.