Taking child abuse seriously

25. November, 2008

Foto: Christopher Buchanan

However unpleasant it is to have to consider child abuse as a possibility, I do believe that schools need child safety professionals, as children need social services who will watch them carefully and deserve police forces that will take abuse seriously.

It is an accepted wisdom in child protection circles that child abuse is under-reported. It is also accepted by the general public and social services that in most cases a child is better off with his parents or relatives than being taken away. It is somewhere in the gap between these two truths that the most horrific cases of children who are seriously injured or killed by their abusers generally lie.

Knowing that abuse is under-reported[1] would suggest that the first thing to be done when a child is suspected of being abused is to remove the access of the alleged abuser. On the other hand, we all enjoy the right to be accepted as innocent until proven guilty, and it is very hard to believe that a relative, trusted professional or family friend is doing something that most find repugnant.

The recent case of Baby P[2], who died as a result of injuries received at the hands of his mother, her boyfriend and the lodger, have once again brought this issue to the fore here in the UK and ensured that those of us who are responsible for the care and education of children are again reviewing the strategies (some of which are outlined below) that we have in place to ensure that the children in our care are as safe as possible.

Accept that it can happen

As part of my training as a child protection officer for my school here in London, I was required to listen to a recording of an interview with a teacher who used his position to sexually abuse children in his care. He explained how he had been abused as a child, how he formed good relationships with his young students, and how he then used those relationships to make his chosen victim feel special and be prepared to keep his secret. Throughout the interview, he was calm, well spoken and pleasant sounding – the sort of person I could imagine interviewing for a job. He had also built up a picture of himself inside his head that did not see himself as a monster, or his victim as a victim. In his mind, he was helping a child and the child was helping him, allowing him to overcome his internal inhibitors[3] and proceed to the next stage of the abuse cycle.

An awareness that child abuse is real, that it happens in all walks of life, and that child abusers can often justify their own actions is the first step if the people involved with a child’s life are to be aware of the significance of what they see.

Take disclosures seriously

Children do not talk about abuse for a variety of reasons. Often, and particularly in the case of physical and sexual abuse, they are frightened of the abuser, but there are many other reasons. Frequently, children do not feel that they will be believed, or do not want other people, including parents, friends and the authorities to find out. In cases of emotional abuse and neglect they may feel that their family’s internal machinations are nobody else’s business. In all cases, children, particularly younger children, may have no understanding that what is happening to them is wrong. To help overcome these obstacles, it is important that children who do make disclosures are taken seriously; that there are places for them to go to (such as the child and youth trust phone in Latvia, 80009000[4], or dedicated pastoral staff in school); and that the disclosure is followed up on.

Trust professional instincts

There are two main difficulties when it comes to spotting child abuse. One is, as stated above, that the abusers have often had to overcome their own consciences and so have explanations for behaviours that may seem not quite to doctors, nurses, teachers or social workers involved. The other is that most people, who do not harbour any secret desire to beat, torture, sexually abuse, or neglect the children in their care, find it hard to believe that others may do any or all of these things. At my most recent child protection training, a very experienced social worker said something to me that echoed something a school director had also said many years ago, “If you, an experienced teacher, feel that something isn’t quite right, then probably it isn’t, and you need to start recording what you see.” Ten years ago, when I was told the same thing by my then head teacher, I spoke to the parent involved, was satisfied by his response, and did nothing. I hope that, if the same situation were to arise now, I would know better and would at least keep a careful watch and records of the child involved.

Medical workers, social workers and teachers all have a moral obligation to act on their suspicions in cases of possible child abuse. This, despite the objections raised by some Latvian MPs[5], should be a legal obligation that both recognises the place of these professionals as experts in the area of child development and reminds them of their responsibilities in the area of child protection.

Record keeping and communication

Full disclosures from children are rare, so the observations of other professionals involved in a case are often the only evidence that a crime has been committed. Even when a child has made a disclosure, physical evidence can be hard to find, and a child’s word may be considered less reliable than that of his suave, well-spoken abuser. Without a disclosure, it is rarely just one thing that will raise concerns about a child’s welfare, but a collection of smaller indicators that, when taken together, indicate that a child may be undergoing abnormal treatment.

Once a child is considered to be at risk it is vital that these observations are recorded carefully and consistently, so that a teacher’s concerns about a student arriving at school without adequate clothing, or a social worker’s record of a family friend saying that she is worried about a child’s safety do not disappear when the employee moves on to pastures new. Equally important is that, once a child has been identified as at risk, the different people involved talk to each other. Putting together a successful prosecution for child abuse involves two agencies with very different interests. The social services have an obligation to protect the child; the police to compile evidence for a prosecution.

Access to children

When children are abused within the family, the question of access – i.e. the possibilities for the alleged abuser to be with the victim – are mixed up with a natural disinclination to remove the child from the family home, and the balance between those two feelings is one that tends to oscillate from one side to the other. According to the weekend’s newspapers, the publicity surrounding the Baby P case has resulted in a sharp rise in the numbers of children being taken into care. A long period of confidence in the systems that a country has in place will inevitably lead to a decline. Beyond the family home, however, it is easier. Latvia, like many European countries, has procedures in place to ensure that people known to be a danger to children cannot work in schools. This is a start, but not on its own, enough. Employers should always meet with potential employees face to face; they should ask questions that investigate a candidate’s motivation for the post applied for; and they should always check references.

Children need caring experts

Reading through the list above, it would be easy to claim that it is predicated on a misjudgement of the human race, or to argue that we should assume that most people would not consider damaging children. When I feel this, I think back to my student teaching days when I worked in a school that had a very heavily involved vicar. Enthusiastic, interested in the children and education, he was the sort of person that would seem like a dream addition to any school. When his serial abuse of children became public, after his wife reported him to the police and he committed suicide, I thought of the children I had worked with at that school, and one boy’s odd behaviour. I considered him naughty and difficult to teach, but should I have guessed? And would I now?

However unpleasant it is to have to consider child abuse as a possibility every time a teacher reports unusual behaviour, I do believe that schools need people like me, as children need social services who will watch carefully and deserve police forces that will take abuse seriously.


[1] The British Crime Survey, 1998, estimated that just 2% of sexual abuse cases within the family and 6% of extra-familial abuse cases were reported

[2] see: ‘A short life of misery and pain’,

[3] Finkelhor, D (1986) Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research


[5] The Ministry for Children and Family Affairs had drafted legislation that required medial staff of maternity hospitals to inform authorities of suspicions of inadequate childcare. The legislation was accepted by the government in spring 2007 but the Social Affairs Committee of the parliament decided not to put it on the parliament’s agenda. One of the objections raised was that it would increase the workload of medical staff.

He Died. Because We Failed To Protect Him raksts

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