Alison Todd: We can all help combat child abuse

The average time between a child being abused and telling someone about it currently sits at close to eight years. Picture: Colin Hattersley
The average time between a child being abused and telling someone about it currently sits at close to eight years. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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IN THE first few months of 2015 we continued to hear shocking news stories about child abuse, and official figures show an incr­ease in sexual offences against children in Scotland.

It is unclear if this is because more people are coming forward, or if more children are experiencing abuse. There is no doubt that high-profile cases such as Savile and Rotherham have given people the confidence to come forward to report abuse, because they know they’ll be listened to.

One of the most horrific of the rec­ent stories was of nursery manager Mark MacLennan, who was jailed for sexually abusing two children in his care. This case came to light because the parents of a three-year-old boy
listened to their son and had the courage to report it. I would like to think this highlights great developments and improvements in how we listen and protect children that a conviction was made on the evidence of a three-year-old.

Children 1st has been camp­aigning for years for justice for children, and through this has seen and advised on many improvements for children’s treatment in the legal system as well as special measures for vulnerable witnesses. We will continue to do this in our fight against the abuse of children.

While we can be pleased with incremental changes as Scotland makes progress towards its ambition of being “the best place to grow up”, in many areas the numbers paint a more shameful picture of how safe Scotland really is for children.

On average, it takes 7.8 years between sexual abuse starting and the point at which a child tries to tell someone. This horrific prolonging of abuse is borne out by the story of Chelsea (not her real name), whose family were referred to Children 1st. When Chelsea tried to tell her mum about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle from the age of three, she wasn’t believed.

One night, when Chelsea was eight, her uncle left the children home alone. She told a friend’s mum, and the whole story of abuse came out. The police got involved and her uncle was convicted.

The UK has the unhappy distinction of being one of the four countries in the EU where children have less protection from assault than adults, and 50,000 children live each year in a household where there’s domestic abuse.

Our ambassador, novelist Damian Barr, has written movingly about the physical chastisement – hitting, smacking – he suffered at the hands of his mother’s ex-boyfriend. Damian observes that he was always told why he was being “smacked” and much of what he suffered remains on the right side of the law. We need to ask ourselves why this is still acceptable in the Scotland we want for our children.

All of the work of Children 1st is about making children safer. Our local services give practical support to families so that their children can live in a safer and more secure environment, and in more than four in every five situations where this help was needed, families said we’d succeeded.

Our ParentLine helpline gives advice on positive parenting, family relationships and boundary setting, as well as advising on child protection if people are concerned about a child. Safeguarding in Sport is our service which helps to ensure that children can stay safe and have fun in sport.

But at Children 1st we believe that Scotland’s children will only be safe if everybody takes responsibility for their protection. Our Twelve Top Tips booklet (download at children1st.org.uk/listen) gives straightforward advice for all adults to be able to see, hear, speak and act to protect children. This not a snoopers’ charter – but a reminder that when you see or hear something that sets alarm bells ringing, it shouldn’t be shrugged off as “someone else’s problem”.

A Children 1st survey found that 44 per cent of adults wouldn’t intervene to help a child because they believed it was “none of their business”.

This needs to change to make Scotland the best place for children.

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