WE MUST learn from the recent shocking cases to listen to children and act to help those at risk, writes Tam Baillie.
Despite three files of evidence being passed by Greater Manchester Police to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), on each occasion no prosecution was pursued.
Greater Manchester Police has now said the evidence against the late Sir Cyril Smith is “overwhelming”. Both it and the CPS said that if Smith had been accused today, he would be charged and prosecuted.
This is perhaps cold comfort to the alleged victims of Smith, Jimmy Savile and other prominent individuals, who are the focus of a series of investigations into historic sexual abuse.
However, the slightly prurient public narrative about which celebrity will be arrested next is in danger of diverting our focus from those most affected. We risk losing sight of the children who were, and still are, the victims.
They have suffered in silence for years, unable to tell their stories because they thought they wouldn’t be listened to, or because they were too filled with shame. Now that they have been brave enough to come forward, we have a responsibility to listen to them and take action on their behalf.
I was involved in social work and remember when the issue of child sexual abuse came to the fore in child protection in the 1970s. Now we have well-developed systems for dealing with abuse and we routinely record children on the “at risk” registers.
In Scotland last year, the number of children assessed to be at risk of sexual abuse was 302, according to the Scottish Government. This figure does not necessarily include those who have experienced sexual abuse – we would expect victims to have ongoing support which would see them come off the “at risk” register.
However, the crucial point to make is that these are children mainly living in family settings; they are at risk of sexual abuse from some of the people who have caring responsibilities for them – not strangers or celebrities or politicians, but those closest to them.
Think about the revulsion we experience when we hear about the Smith and Savile allegations. Then think about the children who are on the child protection register. And then think about those beyond the register who are either recovering with support, or sadly continue to suffer in silence because they are unable to tell someone.
All these children are in our midst: children who could be living in our street, children for whom we should feel the same sense of outrage as those who are now coming forward with claims of historic sexual abuse.
Why is it children can find it so difficult to come forward? They may be subjected to intimidation, threat, blackmail or other forms of coercion by the abuser or abusers.
Or they may be living in confusion or fear of the consequences – a fear which is very well founded, because sexual abuse and a family setting cannot be reconciled; there are inevitably going to be far-reaching consequences once the abuse is disclosed.
Remember too, the children brave enough to confide in an adult about their experience of abuse – but who were ignored.
While understanding all of this, we need to consider whether our approaches can be improved so we listen to and safeguard children effectively.
I believe the reality of doing this raises uncomfortable questions about whether our current system of identification and investigation does everything it can to ensure we maximise the chances of children disclosing abuse.
I know that professionals exercising good practice in dealing with child sexual abuse will take time to consider the options before acting.
However, I also know that professionals can be swept up in tightly-framed child protection procedures which do not allow children any scope for exercising influence over the decisions taken in their interests.
If we are to gain and maintain the confidence of children, we have to create “safe spaces” for them to share information with trusted adults in the knowledge it can remain confidential, except where there is immediate danger.
This would allow children time to exercise some choice in how and when issues are taken forward. For example, one of the key factors contributing to the enormous number of calls received by Childline is that the child calling the charity can exercise a higher level of control.
I know this approach would be much more challenging in face-to-face contacts, and it would also challenge our current notions of confidentiality and information sharing among agencies.
However, children who cannot disclose sexual abuse until they have grown into adulthood also challenge our current systems.
We have a responsibility to look for improvements now – and children have a right to expect that we do so.
This is not a time for moral panic, but a time to be aware that crisis can lead to seismic, cultural changes.
My hope is that the fall-out from the Savile case changes the way we listen to and respond to what children tell us.
We have an opportunity to consider and improve the approach to children and to demonstrate that we can match the courage shown by the people who have come forward in the wake of the Smith and Savile revelations.
• Tam Baillie is Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People