Crying wolf puts more kids at risk

POLEMIC; NSPCC claims about sex abuse are hype, says Rosie Waterhouse

When I was about 15 a man who gave me a lift in his van when I was hitching home fom school to save my bus fare put his hand on my knee. Shocked, I demanded he stop the van and I scrambled out. I never told anyone - I realised I had been stupid to accept a ride from a stranger and decided never to hitchhike alone again.

I hardly thought of the incident again until yesterday when the NSPCC claimed that one in six adults had been victims of "sexual interference" at some time in their childhood. Was this sexual abuse? Am I one of them? I have never thought so. But if so, does it matter? I think not. I did not need counselling to tell me I'd been reckless.

Under the logo A Cry for Children and headed "New Sexual Abuse Figures", yesterday's NSPCC press release was designed to shock. Such a high estimate justifies its existence.

But a closer look shows that incidents of what most people would consider actual or serious sexual abuse are far fewer than one in six. The survey of 1,032 adults says 168, or 16 per cent, of those interviewed had experienced sexual molestation as children. The acts included full and attempted intercourse and touching sexual organs. But, of those who said they were interfered with, 56 per cent reported indecent exposure and 33 per cent being hugged or kissed in a sexual way.

The NSPCC's most controversial publicity campaign came in 1990, when it raised the spectre of a new kind of child abuse - satanic or ritual abuse. A survey of its 66 child protection teams showed that six had encountered allegations of ritual abuse. The questionnaire sent to the teams asked about the occurrence of incidents, such as children having nightmares and tantrums.

But a press officer told journalists this finding was a symptom of Satanic abuse - children were sexually abused by devil-worshippers in black magic ceremonies, which included the eating of faeces, drinking of blood and urine and the sacrifice of children and animals. The NSPCC subsequently trained social workers to identify ritual abuse, helping to spread the Satanic panic that led to unsubstantiated allegations in Rochdale and the Orkneys; a subsequent inquiry concluded there was no evidence for ritual abuse.

The NSPCC's sensation-seeking campaigns usually coincide with publication of its annual report. Last year it reported an income of pounds 42m, up 8 per cent on the previous year. By juxtaposing a survey that suggests the sexual abuse of children is reaching epidemic proportions with calls for more money to be spent on child protection, the NSPCC is being cynical and irresponsible. It is hyping the statistics to maintain generous charitable giving and its high public profile.

Michelle Elliott of Kidscape, a children's campaigning charity, is one of the few prepared to attack a charity that is now a national institution, a sacred cow. She accuses the NSPCC of scaremongering that is positively dangerous tho children. How so? Because by mixing up the terms sexual abuse and sexual interference, it can be accused of overstating the prevalence of real sexual abuse, thus providing fodder to those who down-play the problem.

The Department of Health was swift to cast doubt on the statistics. John Bowis, the health minister, warned that broad definitions and untested statistics risked "crying wolf". "Successful child protection needs to be sharply focused on children at risk, not clouded by emotion and headline- grabbing figures. By suggesting that abuse is this widespread, there is a danger that attention could be diverted from serious child abuse cases."

If the NSPCC wishes to highlight the fact that many children are victims of unwanted sexual advances and to educate men that such behaviour is unacceptable, it should be honest in the language it uses. If it wishes to estimate accurately the prevalence of child sexual abuse perhaps it should fund sound academic research.

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