Baby P exposes our need to believe in the perfect parent
People swallow hogwash about evil cults but find it hard to accept the realities of child abuse in the family
Catherine Bennett, The Guardian, The Observer, UK, November 16 2008
Public expressions of relief, following the announcement that no children's bodies are buried beneath the Haut de la Garenne home in
Jersey, have been notably restrained. In fact you would never think,
What doubts could there be, after all, in the light of regular police disclosures relating to 'milk teeth', 'shackles', a 'large bloodstained concrete bath', and 'at least 30 charred human bone fragments', some thought to date from the 'early 1980s'?
This story did not, for the most part, change until last Wednesday, when police officers recently assigned to the case announced that Haut de la Garenne was not, after all, a vast charnel house. Or even a small one.
There was no evidence that any children had been murdered at the home, nor that any bodies had been destroyed. The 'underground chambers' were holes in the floor. The bath, which had not been used since the twenties, was not bloodstained. The shackles were a piece of rusty metal.
Of the 170 bone fragments found there, burnt or not, the majority were from animals, and were uncovered in a place belonging to the 'Victorian era'. Only three of these fragments were possibly human - two of them thought to date 'from 1400 to the 1600'. The original skull fragment is neither human nor animal: most probably a piece of Victorian coconut.
Although the newly arrived policemen regretted that inaccurate information had been placed in the public domain, one pointed out that this big non-murder story was, really, something we might want to celebrate. Six children had not, after all, been killed by a putative child-abusing and murdering ring. 'That's actually good news,' he said, 'something I think people should be very pleased about.'
Except, of course, that the good news exposes so many people as credulous on a scale that has not been witnessed since the eighties and early nineties, when organised, often highly placed Satanists were widely believed to be abusing and killing our children, drinking their blood and throwing dismembered babies on bonfires.
Accordingly, children were removed from allegedly satanic rings; psychotherapists, such as Dr Valerie Sinason, now of St George's Hospital, instructed fellow clinicians on 'treating survivors of satanic abuse'; and policemen and other self-styled experts on this hogwash urged social workers how to be alert for key 'indicators', viz, any talk of masks, blood-drinking, animal beheadings, and other goings-on so unspeakable that therapists who heard of them would sometimes fear for their own safety. (Mercifully, all appear to have survived.)
For all this terror, there was not much obvious relief or rejoicing in 1994, when Professor Jean La Fontaine, who had been asked to investigate by the Department of Health, found no evidence of satanic abuse. In fact, La Fontaine suggested, more harm had been done to children by the preoccupation with this imagined form of abuse:
It remains to be seen what impact the tale of the non-murders and non-missing children will have on continuing investigations of historic child abuse at Haut de la Garenne.
It can only be unsettling for former residents who, until a few days ago, were repeatedly being asked how they felt about the excavations.
In September, for instance, two survivors were invited on BBC's Woman's Hour to discuss - along with Valerie Sinason - how they felt about the 'grim discoveries', which, the programme reminded listeners, included 'children's bones and teeth', and had prompted islanders to 'question why and how such things could have happened in their midst'.
Now, following the police reversal, islanders may also be questioning why the media were so willing to promulgate, and in some cases embellish, the implications of Jersey's untested finds.
The writer Richard Webster, who has previously exposed the hysteria and false accusations generated by the Bryn Estyn children's home investigations
thinks the uncritical reporting demonstrates, rather, 'the insatiable human appetite for narratives of evil'. Yes, he says, the press should have been more sceptical, 'but people are so desperate to believe in these stories'.
Moreover, where designs on children are involved, it seems to take dismayingly little to make intelligent adults suspend all disbelief. No narrative of evil, children's home nor cult need be involved. In those periods where no threat can be detected from organised Satanists, subterranean torture chambers, or even from bog-standard neighbourhood paedophiles and their paediatrician apprentices, parental panic readily attaches to less extreme sources of harm and corruption.
Great gusts of outrage have been provoked in the recent past by government sex education, pre-teen problem pages, computer games, a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, lyrics sung by Gary Glitter, pole-dancing kits, Grand Theft Auto, Bratz dolls and junior thongs.
Indeed, long before he became interested in routine child protection, David Cameron was
something of a standard bearer for the anti-thong movement, with his
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the thong/telly/computer/fatty food threats is that, with all their unquantifiable ill effects, they originate outside the home, from mighty commercial forces too overwhelming for a parent to resist. For what Cameron cannot do, without betraying his opposition to top-down state intervention, is suggest to British parents that their techniques might be so collectively poor as to merit more, not less, external monitoring, and in many more extreme cases, of child removal.
Even with the current commitment to keeping children, where possible, with their parents, outraged stories from the unfairly accused generally exceed tributes to social workers who have successfully removed children from lethal families.
In 1994, Professor La Fontaine concluded that one reason for belief in evil cults was their relation to 'powerful cultural axioms', specifically about families.
No less than the Haringey social workers, who are said to have fallen into a fixed, though erroneous view of Baby P's best interests, the British have retained their stubborn faith in parental probity, and matching suspicion of interference and outsiders: in this case, Baby P's social workers.
If the public's weakness for preposterous cults tends to