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00Oct30c Dangers for children

From UK Today (Date unknown)

The abuse of power

TO JUDGE by much of the media you would think that paedophiles are the main and constant danger to children. They are not.

Each year about 80 children are murdered - 73 of them will be killed by their parents or close relatives. On average only seven children will die at the hands of strangers, and only a couple of these will be motivated by sex.

In fact the stereotype of the 'dirty old man' is far from the truth. In a study of Childline calls, strangers accounted for just eight out of 1,003 cases. The focus on 'paedophiles' reinforces images of abusers as monsters who are totally different to other men, drawing attention away from the far more prevalent issue of abuse within the family. The family is the most dangerous place for children-between the ages of one and five it is the most common place for a child to be killed. In 1995 the chances of being murdered if you were under one year old was almost double the national average and children of that age were most at risk of being killed by a parent. In such circumstances the vast amount of warning about child abuse, propaganda about the dangers to children and so on should be directed to the family.

Compare the seven children murdered by strangers to traffic deaths.

Last year 103 child pedestrians were killed on the roads. More than 6,000 others were injured, over 1,000 of them seriously, leaving them disfigured or disabled for life. One obvious way to reduce this death toll is to slash the speed limits. Seventeen out of 20 children hit by a car travelling at 40mph will be killed. At 30mph nearly half die. At 20 mph one in 20 dies. Removing bull-bars from cars and trucks also cuts death rates dramatically.

But the government backed off from a 20 mph limit in the face of the car lobby. Many of the papers which have whipped up panic and paranoia over paedophiles applauded the government's climbdown. The government refuses to act over other threats faced by children and young people.

It does not keep statistics on the number of homeless young people. But charities estimate that between 100,000 and 200,000 under 18 year olds experience homelessness each year. Housing Benefit does not cover the costs of deposits on rented accommodation and, in October 1996, Housing Benefit for people under 25 was restricted even further to the cost of a single room in shared accommodation.

Over 40,000 children run away from home each year because of violence or unbearable family tensions. Yet government policy is based on the view that children should stay with their families. Since 1988 16 and 17 year olds have not been entitled to Income Support [welfare payments]. When they flee their homes they often end up on the streets or are vulnerable to drug dealers or to being drawn into prostitution.

In June this year Britain's shameful record on child poverty was laid bare in a damning United Nations report revealing that millions of children are trappe d in conditions among the worst in Europe. Such poverty breeds paranoia, the search for a scapegoat. That was the image that came to mind last week as a mob rampaged through the Portsmouth suburb of Paulsgrove, driving innocent people on a supposed list of alleged paedophiles from their homes. The 20 names on the Paulsgrove residents' hit list included a 17 year old who had sex with his 15 year old girlfriend.

Arthur Miller wrote a powerful play about Salem, the New England town where, in 1692, accusations by a group of teenagers triggered a panic that led 19 people to be executed as witches. The Crucible - recently turned into an equally powerful film - shows how hysteria takes hold of a community. It begins when the deep-felt anxieties of some of the most downcast and oppressed lead them to imagine that there are evil influences living in their midst.

Suddenly no one, however innocent, is immune from accusation. Paulsgrove is like thousands of other suburban and inner-city estates in Britain, bitter at what is happening to their lives after 18 years of Thatcherism and three years of abandonment by New Labour. They feel someone must be to blame, but don't know who. Such alienation pervades every advanced capitalist society. And it can lead to quite irrational moods developing. This feeling is then used by some of the less downcast and oppressed to further their own interests.

It seems the government would rather pander to media paranoia-pushers than tackle children's root problems. The more they devote themselves to the cosy world of Westminster, with its business breakfasts, public relations freebies and champagne parties, the more they fear the millions of people they have no real contact with. To read some of the newspapers last week you would think that council estates are beyond the boundaries of civilisation.

So David Aaronovitch writes in the Independent that "watching Paulsgrove Woman at work has reemphasized for me how scared I am of a certain part of our society. Paulsgrove Woman, I felt, was of an alien race to me." He then goes on both to call for the prosecution of those leading the Paulsgrove demonstrations and yet to accept their demands.

"Concerns about 'demonisation'," he writes, in words which could have come from the governor of Massachusetts at the time of Salem, "should not blind us to the existence of demons." The Guardian editorial is hardly any better.

It says the "standoff" has "exposed the chasm which divides the 3,000 or so estates like Paulsgrove from the more affluent, sheltered parts of Britain". In these it claims "calmer discussion prevails", based on "the liberal arguments familiar in newspapers, TV studios, parliamentary tearooms and bishops' studies".

But it is precisely in these "more affluent" places that the poison which afflicted Paulsgrove originated. The scares touch a nerve among millions of people who feel that they have to go to any lengths to protect children from danger, including the rapid jerry-built construction of a nanny state. Those who benefit from this are not the poor.

The witch-hunt was started in a newspaper by Rebekah Wade, the highly paid editor of the News of the World and a welcome face in Downing Street. It followed on from the witch-hunt against refugees and gypsys, incited from the parliamentary tea rooms by William Hague and Ann Widdecombe, and the howling against gay men over Section 28 - backed by the bishops in the House of Lords.

There were rumours that neo-Nazi organisers arrived on Paulsgrove after a few days, but they are just rumours -- the deepest prejudices in Britain are not to be found on council estates but on the golf courses of Middle England and the grouse moors of the upper classes - as anyone who's ever listened to a House of Lords debate or read the letters page of the Daily Telegraph should know. Sustained challenges to such prejudices arise when working class people have strong, collective and workplace organisations that enable them to face up to those who really oppress them.

The tragedy in places like Paulsgrove is that genuine collective class organisation is weak. They become fragmented groups of people with little connection with each other, and easily manipulated by the likes of Rebekah Wade.

I suspect, however, that David Aaronovitch, the Guardian editorial writers, the salaried middle-class charity organisers and their ilk, would be even more unhappy if such organisations did exist and did lead the people of Paulsgrove in a clear-sighted fight against those who really condemn them and their children to rotten lives.


IT HAS been hard to find any rational debate amid all the recent press hysteria about paedophilia. Any sexual abuse of children is utterly horrific. But papers like the News of the World have deliberately exaggerated the extent of the problem.

They would have us believe that there are thousands of paedophiles ready to pounce on our children. Thankfully, however, violent sexual assaults on children are extremely rare. The News of the World claims there are 110,000 convicted paedophiles in England and Wales. According to police figures, of these 110,000 there are about 50 who they define as paedophiles who have raped or abducted children - and most of those 50 are safely locked up.

Even among the free 'schedule one offenders', who have been convicted and who remain on the sex offenders register for life, there is a young woman who is banned for life from contact with children because she ripped a chain off a 13 year old's neck when she was 16 years old. The 1989 sex offenders register contains a six year old boy who put his hands down a girl's pants in the playground. If convicted, sex offenders are trapped in a system that creates monsters and then institutionalises them.

The News of the World also uses a wide definition of paedophilia, which includes incidents like flashing and downloading indecent material from the Internet. The paper often seems to apply the label to any man who fancies anyone under 18, including the most busty 17-and-a-half year old -- and by that definition, most tabloid readers are paedophiles.

Flashing or downloading indecent pictures is not the same as sexually attacking or raping a child. The press paint a picture of paedophiles as "evil monsters" who are violent strangers preying on a community from the outside. In fact most sexual abuse takes place within the family.

It is not good enough to dismiss this as the result of evil individuals. We have to look at the kind of society we live in - the daily grind of life-poverty, long working hours, bad housing, poor education and so on-puts immense strain on our ability to develop good relationships.

One recent Home Office study of paedophiles found "a lack of intimacy and high levels of emotional loneliness" were common factors in the background of child sex offenders. This loneliness is also true of too many uncared-for children. The combination of these factors tells us much about why paedophile relationships so often remain undetected. If we understand that the 109,950 paedophiles who the police do not judge to be about to rape or abduct children are far more "ordinary" than the monsters in the media, then we can start to understand why the paedophile is so often strongly loved and defended by the child, even in the face of society's disapproval and even where obvious abuse is involved.

We want to see an end to all forms of abuse. But that will not come about by press witch-hunts or repressive sentencing.

Perhaps the most effective measure would be intensive supportive treatment for paedophiles of low intellect. A study in 1988 pointed out that, among 'untreated' offenders, those with a low intellect are most likely to reoffend. In the same year another study found that the people most likely not to reoffend are men over 40 years old outside of the family - the very men we are told are the real problem.

Yet treatment programmes for any paedophiles are woefully inadequate, and suffer from cuts and underfunding. According to the Prison Service annual report for 1999-2000, only 585 convicted sex offenders completed a treatment programme compared with the target of 700. The shortfall was blamed on a shortage of qualified staff. Often money is denied and, in some cases, withdrawn from such programmes.

Instead New Labour has played into the hands of the most conservative and reactionary. At the same time it allows open season to the Murdoch press which creates the witch-hunt but then sneers at the witch-hunters, all the while conceding their demands.

The real victims of this cynical manoeuvre are the many children who will continue to suffer abuse, sexual and physical, as a result of a system that encourages mob rule and cracks on about life sentences, but which does little or nothing to deal with the underlying issues.


Re-defining abuse?

The National Commission of Enquiry into the Prevention of Child Abuse, an NSPCC body, widely defines abuse as follows:

'Child abuse consists of anything which individuals, institutions or processes do, or fail to do, which directly or indirectly harms children, or damages their prospects of safe and healthy development into adulthood. Abuse need not, under this formula, be deliberate, direct or even committed by a person. It can be carried out by vague abstractions, by "institutions and processes". It need not even cause actual harm to the children concerned, only to their "prospects", which they may overcome. And the harm itself remains left to subjective assessment.'


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