Suffer the children

On Sunday the Observer carried this shock story:

The scale of violence against children has been revealed in new figures which show that in England an average 58 youngsters a day are being admitted to hospital after being deliberately injured. The numbers, contained in National Health Service data, suggest that the incidence of intentional harm against children may be rising. Five years ago some 16,600 were counted as having suffered deliberate harm, but the figure rose to 21,859 last year.

…For doctors, the situation is intensely difficult as they have to explain to parents why they are carrying out investigations on a child who has what appears to be suspicious fractures or burns.

The message that the person on the Clapham omnibus would get from a quick scan of this article is clear: last year nearly 22,000 children were hospitalised by their parents.

Now look at this rather more measured item on BBC News:

Violence against babies and young children in England and Wales more than doubled last year, a survey of accident and emergency unit data suggests.

The Cardiff University study indicates the number of under-10s who were hurt rose to 8,067 from 3,805 in 2006.

The report said: “It is not clear whether violence at the hands of parents or carers is responsible for this increase. Recent evidence suggests that violence between children at school and in public places is also a problem.”

Why the disparity in the figures? Because the first article is talking about all children – that is, everyone under 18, while the second concentrates on the physically more vulnerable under-10s. The Observer article also fails to make clear that it’s talking about injuries received from all sources, and not only as a result of parental violence.

The problem is that such vague, breathless reports do no favours to child protection work because they make the more pertinent figures for abuse seem trivial by comparison. Each week, 150 young children are deliberately hurt by somebody else, and badly enough to need hospital treatment. Even if only ten percent of them were to be assaulted by their parents, that would still be appalling.

We can do without the Clapham-bound traveller thinking: “Oh, so it isn’t actually that serious after all” because from there, it’s a short step to discounting what may be happening right under your nose. But believing hyped-up figures is equally dangerous because it encourages an idea that abuse is so widespread that all families must be monitored, with the result that the relatively tiny number of children whose parents are frighteningly violent towards them disappear into a swill of trivial observation.

We’ve now had several years of increasing ‘information-sharing’ about children, but the figures for non-accidental injury seem to be getting worse. Contactpoint and eCAF are not going to make any difference: by the government’s own admission they are not child protection tools. Meanwhile, the Integrated Children’s System – which is replacing child protection registers – isn’t fit for purpose and many authorities are dragging their feet in implementing it because it’s worrying the hell out of them.

While all this fiddling around with shiny, fantastical new technology goes on, too many children are getting hurt. What will it take to persuade the government to shut its toybox and re-focus attention and money on honing the child protection workforce?

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