How well do we protect our children and young people?

Maggie Blyth

Maggie Blyth

The interests of adults – their desire to escape criticism, avoid controversy and carry on much as before – cannot be allowed to take precedence over the needs of our most vulnerable children.” Michael Gove, November 2012

In November 2012, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner published a report into child sexual exploitation. The report revealed that in a 14-month period 16,500 children were at high risk of sexual exploitation and 2,409 had been sexually exploited. Around the same time Lord Carlile reported on the case in Edlington where two brothers were convicted in 2009 of seriously assaulting younger child victims. The conviction of a group of men in Rochdale following years of sexual exploitation involving care homes in the area also reached the public domain.  During 2012, five out of the 12 local authorities inspected under the new Ofsted regime have been considered ‘inadequate’.

All these reports are published at the same time as public outcry into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile against vulnerable children. The case has had major repercussions for the BBC, the NHS and a vast array of children’s charities and others who may have failed to protect children from abuse. Not since the media frenzy following the death of Baby Peter four years ago has the plight of neglected and abused children hit the headlines in the same consistent way.

Despite the response of the public and media to the Jimmy Savile story and the publication of the recent cases, the abuse faced by many vulnerable children and young people in the UK, and the effectiveness of multi-agency child protection arrangements to protect them, receives little attention. How safe are such children and why is it that adults underestimate how to protect older young people?

The evidence is stark. It shows that unless the death of a young child occurs, the maltreatment of young people is of less interest to the wider public.

Recent analyses of Special Case Reviews  involving death or serious harm to a child or young person (Brandon et al, 2008, 2009, 2012 ) have found that between a fifth and a quarter of such reviews involved young people aged 11 to 17 years old at the time of the incident. Last year, in 2011, it was revealed in Parliament that since 2006 a total of 132 young offenders have died in serious incidents while under supervision in the community.

The nature of these recent cases indicates that older adolescent children are very difficult to help and are often failed by child protection arrangements.

About a quarter of all children who become the subject of a child protection plan in England are aged between 10 and 15 years old. Adolescents remain one of the two highest risk groups, alongside infants, in relation to fatalities. (Brandon et al, 2012).

Rees and Stein (2011 ) conclude that adults deal differently with older young people at risk in the following ways:

  • Young people aged 10-17 are seen as more able to deal with maltreatment, including being able to escape the situation and seek help;
  • They are perceived by some professionals as more ‘resilient’ – i.e. more able to cope with the experiences of maltreatment;
  • They are more likely to be seen as contributing to and exacerbating the situation through their own behaviour;
  • Young people are seen as putting themselves at risk through risk- taking behaviour, such as drinking alcohol and taking drugs.

For many young people suffering maltreatment at the hands of abusive adults, it is disheartening that, in responding to their needs, professionals still fall short of understanding the risks some of them face. And when it comes to public interest, the focus of a story remains too often around the adults at the centre of the allegations or the institutions themselves, run by adults. Where within this can we find the voice of the child, and the experiences of those young people that are the true victims of the recent headlines? Learning the lessons of commanding corporate responsibility for child protection at the heart of every single institution will help. But in doing this we must not protect the adults over the children.

Maggie Blyth is Independent Chair of Kent Safeguarding Children Board and co-editor with Enver Solomon of Effective safeguarding for children, which is on offer this month at £10.

Blyth M and Solomon E (eds) Safeguarding Children: what next after Munro
Brandon M, Bailey S, Sidebotham P, Belderson P, Hawley C, Ellis C and Megson M (2012) New learning from SCRs: A two year report from 2009-2011 London:DfE
Rees S, Stein M, Hicks L and Gorvi S (2011) Adolescent Neglect: London Jessica Kingsley

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