Leading Article: Statistical improbability

On the face of it, the figures published by The Lancet yesterday, suggesting that one in 10 children are victims of "maltreatment", are shocking. If true, they imply that, each year, one million children in Britain are being beaten, burned, punched, hit with implements or subjected to sexual abuse ranging from being shown pornographic material to penetrative intercourse.

Such a picture is deeply disturbing – it is a picture of a society which viciously abuses its children and routinely ignores their plight. Fewer than one-tenth of cases are investigated and confirmed because professionals are afraid that the harm caused by reporting the abuse might outweigh the benefits, research shows.

That should cause us to pause. The figures are based on self-reports, which may require recall of events that happened many years ago. Among the current cases, in many of those investigated by doctors, injuries were not found. Emotional abuse and neglect are also included in the review of research, and the results from different surveys vary widely – from one to 15 per cent of children affected – so it is impossible to know the true extent of the problem.

The report also leaves questions about what counts as abuse and how childhood is defined. A girl of 17 who is pressed into having sex by a boyfriend, while a clear instance of abuse, is a different case from that of a seven-year-old raped by a relative. A blow landed in anger on a 15- year-old might have a more traumatic effect on family relationships than a smack delivered to a naughty child of five. How helpful is it, and how meaningful, to gather the many varieties of cruelty meted out by adults to children – and by children to each other – into one catch-all category of child maltreatment?

In the wake of the Baby P case, professionals and policy-makers are looking for practical measures that can protect children from abuse and encourage safety in childhood – and so they should be. These findings suggest that social services departments, already overwhelmed with desperate cases, face a huge extra burden. There has to be a better way of identifying those children at greatest risk and the measures that will best help them.