|Early intervention is vital because signs of violent offending in later life can be identified in children as young as three. Photograph: Alamy|
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 September 2013 02.00 EDT
High-profile cases have put child abuse at the forefront of public debate. Experts believe higher prevention rates depend on support for targeted initiatives replacing moral outrage
Child abuse – which has dominated the headlines over the past year as a result of the Savile inquiry and other high-profile child-cruelty cases, and which is often presented as one of the country's most intractable problems – could be reduced by 70% by the year 2030, delegates to a Guardian debate were told.
Plenty of research exists, and more work is being carried out, that shows what could and would lead to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of maltreatment of children. The biggest difficulty is persuading not only decision-makers, but also the public, that preventing child abuse is possible, given the right steps.
But what's needed first, participants at the roundtable debate – sponsored by the NSPCC – heard, is a shift in the way the media perceives the problem: too often, one participant remarked, tabloid-newspaper coverage focuses on a witch-hunt and not on the issues that create a culture in which abuse is allowed to continue.
The debate focused on the fact that children who are abused are much more likely to become adults who abuse (between 30% and 40% of people who are abused as children go on to become abusers themselves) – so it is vital to concentrate efforts on families that could be identified as being at greater risk of abuse.
Supporting those families would pay huge dividends in the long term because reducing the incidence of abuse in the short term would have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of adults likely to become abusers in the decades ahead.
"When you look at the evidence, what comes as a big surprise is that it's the very start of a child's life that matters most," said one participant. "By the age of three, nurses can identify those children who will go on to become violent offenders. By three, these children are 10-times more aggressive than the most peaceful children.
"As well as being able to identify the children, we can also identify their home circumstances. We know problems stem directly from not having a secure parental attachment; 15% of children in this country have disorganised attachment and they are on a pathway to being disruptive at school and going on to live lives with high levels of aggression."
These children would go on to become society's abusers, so taking the right action now would make a significant difference to levels of abuse in the future.
The problem, delegates were told, was that while Savile and individual, shocking cases of abuse, such as that of murdered four-year-old Daniel Pelka, had led to high levels of public anger about child abuse – the thrust of the reaction was still punitive. "What we're seeing is a great deal of moral outrage, but not so much interest in the targeted work that would make a real difference," one participant noted.
Stoking the flames of this reaction is a lot of the media coverage. "All the tabloids want to do is see offenders crucified," said one contributor. "So the focus of decision-makers gets drawn towards that." Another participant agreed, adding: "The great fear politicians have is of newspapers pointing their fingers [at initiatives designed to ameliorate the problems] and saying 'nanny state'."
But the good news, said another participant, was that research was well on the way to identifying which initiatives could be successful at tackling the root causes of abuse – and a £165m Big Lottery project was about to begin, aimed at pinpointing exactly which early-life interventions could be transformative.
"We don't yet have a blueprint, but we do know a lot more than many people realise about how to make a difference and how to identify people most at risk [of becoming abusers]. We're in a very good place to start working; we're on a learning path," said one contributor.
The NSPCC, which has experienced a huge surge in demand for its services in the wake of the Savile investigation, is also expanding its work in response to the increased awareness of child abuse. Its £20m Now I Know campaign to build a ChildLine Schools Service, will train volunteers to visit primary schools throughout Britain to teach children about abuse. It's about giving children the confidence to talk about abuse and equipping them to protect themselves through simple advice.
What the Savile inquiry has shown is that "stranger danger", on which past campaigns had concentrated, doesn't target the biggest problem, which is people who are trusted and known to children, and who find ways and opportunities to access them (in more than 90% of cases, children are sexually abused by someone known to them). The problem with this message, several delegates pointed out, was that by alerting children to the fact that trusted adults could be abusers, it raised the question of who could a child trust?
One positive reaction to Savile is that many parents have contacted the NSPCC to ask what they ought to tell their children to equip them with the knowledge they need. Parents are certainly looking to play their part – six in 10 report trying to have a conversation with their children about the risks of sexual abuse, although most concentrate on stranger danger, despite knowing that the real risk is closer to home.
The NSPCC's response has been its current campaign on "the underwear rule", which gives parents simple guidelines to explain to children that the parts of their body covered by their underwear are private, and no one should be asking to touch or look at those places.
There was also discussion about what adults who suspected another adult of abuse could do about it: who could they trust with their fears and what assurances could they be given to enable them to disclose their concerns?
"The worry at the moment is that people dismiss their anxieties because no one wants to think it of a trusted colleague or friend," said one participant. "There's a big fear around getting involved: people think, if I give information what will happen next? Do I have to follow it through? And we need to get the message across: 'just tell us'."
Alongside the importance of tackling child abuse at its roots – ie in families with problems that can be easily identified – the roundtable participants heard about a number of key areas and stakeholders who could make a difference in the battle to reduce the problem. These include GPs, especially given the recent changes in the way services are commissioned.
"GPs don't want responsibility for this, so there's a huge cultural job to be done with them to get them to take on the issue," said one participant. "But it would make a huge difference."
Internet companies must also be persuaded to police themselves, so that when a new product or service is developed that is likely to be used by children and young people, it has a safety check to ensure it cannot be misappropriated by an abuser.
The onus has so far been on parents, teachers and law-enforcement agents to ensure that internet products are not abused in this way. But, said one participant, recent investigations into the number of individuals (overwhelmingly men) who were suspected of internet misuse illustrates that society cannot effectively tackle the problem from that end.
"No police force in the country can cope with the number of abuse suspects who have come to their attention via the internet," said one participant. "We're going to have to accept that high-tech companies will have to up their game where child protection is concerned."