There is a, quite correct, intense focus on the needs of children variously categorised as being at risk, in need of care, or in distress because of neglect or abuse. The numbers of such children varies and has recently been rising. What are the factors within families that are most likely to lead to children being abused or neglected? What is the threshold for statutory intervention? What is the current and likely future scale of the issue? Are there new kinds of abuse emerging, or unrecognised forms that are not yet on the radar of those watching out for such things? How prepared are we, as a society, to respond rapidly to any new sources of distress to vulnerable children?
It is clear that the neglect and abuse of children is far from a new phenomenon. My own first academic contact with the issue was Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson’s book ‘Children in Distress’ in 1968 and the UK White Paper ‘Children in Trouble’ which led up to the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act.
Children’s everyday experience of distressful lives did not start with their public accounting in such documents. This is an old and extensive problem that continues to take new forms and occur over fluctuating scales – always demanding new attentions and expecting new responses.
Currently the focus is on the expectation that something should be done, immediately and robustly, whenever abuse or neglect is suspected; that preventative mechanisms should be in place for early detection of such risks in order to head things off before they become more serious; that being alert to such situations is the responsibility of everyone and not to be left to particular individuals; and that new forms of neglect and abuse are constantly emerging so that vigilance and foresight are required more than ever.
The threshold between the rigours of childrearing and the spill-over into abuse or neglect is not crisp. The extremes are obvious. Just as healthy contexts for childrearing will ‘make’ children – so there are a number of risky contexts that, if not addressed, can ‘break’ children. Around the boundary between these two are family contexts which may, or may not, turn into something risky – but things cannot always be assumed to be problematic. Family behaviours may simply be transient, may sort themselves out, especially if early help is on offer. Read more