One of the perennial issues that fires up politicians, the media and many of the public in the UK, as with many places, is when a case of horrendous abuse and neglect of children is discovered. More often than not one or more parents are implicated in it, and accusations are thrown around about why it wasn't detected earlier.
The role of the state in this is enforcer of criminal law, but it is in the difficult area of crimes against children by their parents and guardians. Children inherently do not have the rights and powers of adults, because their rights are held in trust by their parents/guardians. The opportunities for children to reach beyond these people to seek help for violent or sexual abuse are varied, but may be severely impaired by abusive adults who threaten or apply violence and detention upon them if they say anything. The situation of the scared small helpless child being beaten or raped, and fearful to tell others is one of the most appalling and repulsive images for most sane adults.
Until comparatively recently, many children in those situations had to rely upon other relatives to rescue them or for trauma to be severe enough to be obvious to a doctor, if medical attention was made available. Even in such cases, sadistic parents/guardians might lie, "she fell down the stairs" excuses abound. Sexual crimes in particular being difficult to prove, or even link to an individual in an age before DNA evidence. The word of abused children alone was often not believed.
Yet most children were and are raised by parents/guardians who love them, who don't beat and abuse them, and while never perfect (who is?), they genuinely acted in the child's best interests. Such children would be fed, clothed, kept warm, given medical attention, taken to school and given the attention, love and dedication of normal loving parents. In other words, the family unit works, most of the time.
Yet the cases when it failed came to increasing attention in the 1970s and 1980s. It started with physical abuse, as more women in particular came to no longer tolerate men beating them up (and their children). It then came with sexual abuse, and the truly disturbing issue of incestual child rape (when children wouldn't be believed because their father was a "pillar of society") which gained attention.
The road to hell was then paved with the good intentions of those who wanted to protect children. I recall in the 1980s a NZ Telethon which claimed that 1 in 3 girls in NZ were sexually abused by their fathers. A bogus statistic sourced not from prosecutions or even charges, but by writers in feminist social policy. Some of the definitions of "abuse" included "seeing dad naked" - which is highly likely to occur at some point, given families can share bathrooms, or children can walk into bedrooms uninvited etc.
Of course there was a wider agenda going on. The focus was on men committing abuse (which was no doubt backed up by statistics) and the focus on taking children away from fathers. A similar philosophy was taking over in the UK, Australia and the US, including the now largely discredited theory that children who say "no" are scared of saying "yes" when asked about abuse.
The approach was rather simple. A child was placed in an interview with a psychologist, who would progressively ask leading questions as to whether "certain things happened" that would constitute abuse. If the child kept saying "no" this wouldn't be believed, until finally the child, having figured out that she was giving the wrong answer (and being uncomfortable with being constantly questioned) said "yes". At that point there was glee from the psychologist, and the apparatus of state would come into play and split up a family, putting it through criminal investigation and trial.
The snake-oil merchants and pseuds who perpetrated this nonsense caused enormous harm and damage to parents and children. "False memory syndrome" was a similar theory, which implied that people who were abused "blanked out the memory" (true in the case of very severe ongoing trauma), so when they couldn't remember any abuse, they would be probed more until they finally "remembered" something that could have been interpreted as abuse (e.g. "I was on dad's lap and I can't remember if he might have had an erection or not, I don't know, he could've, but I don't remember noticing it, though I might not have known what it was to remember it").
So whilst some were looking for abuse at every corner, every time a real case would appear (maybe once a year or so), there would be horrors that "not enough had been done".
Well in the UK today plenty is done, although Ofsted (the bureaucracy responsible for "children's services" in the UK) claims 119 children suffered serious injury or death due to a failure to intervene. Meanwhile, the untold story is that of cases of intervention that are traumatic and dead wrong.
You see under pressure to ensure every child is safe, authorities in the UK respond hysterically to suspicions and allegations, and put parents through processes where it is assumed that they are guilty, until proven innocent. Christopher Booker has been highlighting these issues in two articles in the Daily Telegraph:
in the latest year for which we have figures (2008), of 7,340 applications for care orders made by social workers, only 20 were refused. Meanwhile, the children themselves are handed over to foster homes, which receive £400 a week or £20,000 a year for each child, and where many are intensely unhappy and not infrequently abused. Foster carers and social workers routinely conspire to tell bewildered children that their parents neither love them nor want them back. Children and parents meet at rigorously supervised "contact sessions", where any expression of affection or attempt to discuss why the children have been taken from home may be punished by termination of the session or denial of further contact.
"one Court of Appeal judge recently compared the conduct of a council's social workers to what went on in "Stalin's Russia or Mao's China". But in general this cruel, dishonest and venal system continues on its way, hidden from view, accountable to nobody but itself."
Data privacy laws prevent anyone getting any decent information about specific cases, and parents also know that if they talk about their experiences, they are under further suspicion. "Kafka-esque" is one description of it
Parents are forbidden to talk to the media or even to their MPs about the injustice they are suffering. Several times in recent months, councils have sought injunctions to prohibit me reporting anything at all about a case, even though no person or even the council itself would be identified. More than once, parents have been threatened with contempt of court and prison if they talk to me or anyone else about how they are being treated.
He writes about a case of a family that fled to northern Cyprus after social workers took their child off them because a neighbour complained about the parents having a noisy argument. Grandparents on one side of the family had decided to work with social workers and got custody of the child, and the whole mess unravelled. After the interim care order had taken away their child they wondered:
Last June, puzzled at why the interim care order had not been renewed as the law requires, Carol called the court. She was told that the order had lapsed three months earlier. When her husband confirmed this by a second call to the court, Carol drove to her in-laws’ home to explain that there was no longer any legal reason why her daughter could not be returned to her. Her mother-in-law protested, but the child was so overjoyed to go home that she ran to get into her mother’s car. The mother-in-law stood in front of the car but Carol reversed and drove off. When her daughter said she was hungry, they stopped at a motorway service station. The grandmother had alerted the police, the car number was picked up by a camera and before long Carol (who was pregnant again) was arrested, handcuffed and pushed into a police van. At the police station, she collapsed and was taken to hospital.
What is clear is that many thousands of people are involved in a state industry of child protection that assumes intervention is preferable to investigation and assessment. The common law right to assume someone is innocent until proven guilty is under attack, and children are assumed to be in imminent danger when there is no objective evidence as to that danger. More importantly, the risk and harm involved in forcibly separating children from their parents in these circumstances is almost completely underplayed.
What is needed is to consider objectively what the role of the state should be in protecting children. It certainly should intervene when there is sufficient likelihood that failure to do so will put the child in danger of violent or sexual assault - (and I don't mean a smack, i mean a beating).
That isn't a threshold of balance of probabilities, it isn't a threshold of beyond reasonable doubt (that's for the courts), but it does mean accepting that sometimes children wont be saved. Yet it is better that this be the case than for the state to recklessly damage families and harm children by intervening when it shouldn't. Police forces may have washed their hands of assessing families in favour of child protection workers, but how well placed are they to make judgments about intervening below criminal standards of proof.
The culture and philosophy behind child protection needs a serious investigation. The priority given to protecting children should also include an assumption that it is best children stay with their parents/guardians unless there is enough prima facie evidence that they are criminally abusing the child. That doesn't mean shouting, it doesn't mean being drunk, it doesn't mean seeing mum and dad naked, it doesn't mean accepting hearsay as enough reason to intervene.
Moreover, some serious thought needs to be given about whether it remains appropriate for the state to subsidise the raising of children. The clearest message to adults should be that if you breed, it is a cost upon you to raise children - they will cost part of your income - YOUR income. You wont get extra money for extra kids, or a bigger house. You will have to cope. If you don't like it, then don't breed. If you breed accidentally then put up with it, or give up the child for adoption.
If it seems harsh to abolish it, it only needs 10 months worth of warning that no new applications for benefit for children will be accepted, and people will be on their own if they have more kids. The existing benefits can be frozen nominally. The quid pro quo is that taxes can be cut.
The welfare state pays people to breed, it rewards fecundity, yet the same state seeks to punish if it gets a hint that children are not being treated "as they should be". The very same state relies on taxes from the vast bulk of families who never create a single problem.
At one time the state let families be autonomous and people daren't intervene in their neighbours affairs - the Fritzl case in Austria being an extreme example of what happens when people become completely atomised from each other. However things have moved too far towards a culture of assuming that when allegations are raised, they are true. It will never be perfect, there will always be children who aren't saved, there will always be families who are unfairly and brutally split because of false allegations and assumptions, but a free society should always presume innocence first.