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Issue 50, September 2000

Child abuse, the family and society

    A major social problem
    Megan's law
    More resources needed

JEAN THORPE, a national executive committee member of Britain's largest public services union, UNISON (writing in a personal capacity), explains that the issue of child abuse is a social problem which cannot be tackled by simplistic populist slogans.

BY 'NAMING AND SHAMING' convicted child sex offenders, the tabloid newspaper, the News of the World, unleashed another spate of vigilante attacks against suspected abusers. Universally condemned by child protection agencies, the probation service, and other organisations working with sex offenders, they have been forced to back down. But not before innocent people were physically attacked and forced to flee their homes. In a similar outbreak three years ago a 14-year-old girl was burnt alive when her home was firebombed by vigilantes who wrongly thought it was occupied by a sex offender.

This time some of the worst incidents have taken place on the Paulsgrove estate, a socially deprived area on the outskirts of Portsmouth. Local residents have more than enough reasons to feel abandoned and let down by the politicians and the 'powers that be'. The idea that their estate has become a 'dumping ground' for child sex offenders and that their children aren't safe, has fuelled existing discontent. This culminated in disorganised and dangerous nightly protests, directed against 'suspected' paedophiles. As a result five innocent families have been forced to leave the estate.


Such activities can force offenders to move from estate to estate, town to town and, eventually, to drive them underground. Agencies monitoring them can lose contact, making them far more dangerous. One sex offender out on licence in the south-east of England, went missing from his home, an opened copy of the News of the World left on his kitchen table.

Understandably, parents worry that their children could be at risk from child sex offenders. High profile, tragic cases like the abduction and murder of eight-year old Sarah Payne, heighten those fears. But by focusing on particular sex offenders the media convey the impression that ending the sexual abuse of children is about dealing with a layer of 'predatory paedophiles'. This gives a very misleading impression about what is really going on in society. Between five and nine children are abducted and killed every year, 10% of all child homicide victims. A child is 15 times more likely to be killed by a parent than an unknown paedophile. One child dies on average every two to three days at the hands of a family member.

There are currently around 110,000 convicted child sex offenders, yet the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the police estimate that there could be as many as 1.1 million sex offenders in Britain today. This figure is based on research which suggests that only one-in-ten child sex offenders is convicted, taking into account abuse which is not reported, or which does not result in a conviction.


This huge figure is borne out by 'prevalence studies' (surveys which ask people whether they were the victims of sexual abuse as children). Studies in Britain, the USA, Switzerland, Germany and Australia consistently report that around 20% of women and 8% of men were sexually abused as children.

Child sexual abuse is very easy to commit, and very easy to get away with. Children may be too frightened to tell anyone - all kinds of threats may have been made alongside the abuse. Younger children, though often traumatised and confused by the abuse, may for a while not realise this doesn't happen to every child. Children may have no-one to tell whom they can trust, or they may try to tell and not be believed.

Often, like adult victims of sexual assault, there may be no evidence but a child's word. Even where cases get to court, they can be torn apart by defence lawyers. In one case, a man was accused of raping a 13-year-old with learning difficulties. In cross-examination in court the man's lawyer began by asking the girl to count backwards from 20, and to spell various words. She became confused and made mistakes. The man was acquitted.

top     A major social problem

MOST ABUSERS WORK alone and are well known to their victim. The NSPCC found that 70% were closely related to their victim, and that this included female abusers. Eighty per cent of abuse takes place in the child's home or the home of an abuser who is known to them.


There is also clear evidence of organised paedophile rings, including those trading internationally in child pornography. The NSPCC estimate there are at least 240 active paedophile rings in Britain, including some that are operating from inside prisons. Marcel Verloesen recently unearthed evidence of a large international child pornography network that has been trading via the Internet.

Paedophile rings have in certain instances deliberately infiltrated local authority care services and secured leading positions within the social work profession. Peter Righton, before his conviction, had lectured in social work and went on to become Director of Education at the National Institute of Social Work, a position from which he could have potentially influenced government policy. Keith Laverick, who worked at Greystone Heath School in the 1960s, systematically abused boys there. He went on to run the Guardian Ad Litem panel for Cambridgeshire county council, which provided independent social workers to represent children's interests in court cases. This post would have given him access to the files of abused children. There are at present 80 separate investigations into abuse in children's homes being undertaken by 32 police authorities.

The extent of child sexual abuse, within the family and the public care system, shows this problem cannot be tackled simply by actions against a layer of convicted paedophiles. It is a major social problem. That does not negate appropriate action being taken to protect individual children and keep the most dangerous paedophiles in custody. But the biggest risks to children are from people they know well - people within their family who are supposed to be caring for them.


To most people, the family appears to be a private, personal institution, determined by their choice of partner and the decision to have children. However, the family is also a social institution. No matter how individual households are formed, the family is rooted within the economic and social relations of class society. The family, moreover, has always been seen by the ruling class as another means of maintaining control over society. The father, traditionally head of the household, has been seen as a figure of authority. Hierarchical relations within the family - between men and women, and between adults and children - replicate wider class relations of violence and power within capitalist society. Sexual abuse of children - like abuse of women - is one extreme manifestation of power relations within the family. Sexual abuse is almost always fundamentally about power, albeit with a sexual element.

top     Megan's law

THE FIGURE OF 1.1 million possible sex offenders in Britain represents a social problem of major proportions. However, for the ruling class to admit the scale of the problem would mean admitting that the nuclear family, for many children, is not the great institution they would have us believe. It is not always the safe, loving place that Margaret Thatcher described when she asserted that the family 'is a nursery, a school, a hospital, a leisure centre, a place of refuge and a place of rest'.

To acknowledge the full extent of child sexual abuse would mean exposing the real nature of the family in capitalist society. The media concentration on a small layer of paedophiles who have committed the most horrific crimes against children serves to disguise a much bigger social problem. The same newspapers that whip-up a lynch-mob mentality against paedophiles, feature topless models in school uniforms.


The publicity given to activities like 'outing' paedophiles detracts from the real problem. Since 1997 the names of convicted sex offenders have been placed on a national register. It is important that agencies like social services can quickly access information on convicted sex offenders who may be living in a household with children. But given that most sex offenders have not been convicted the register can only monitor the whereabouts of a small layer of offenders.

The News of the World is leading a campaign for the register to be open and public as it is in most states in the USA. There 'Megan's Law', as it has become known, was introduced in 1994 following the abuse and murder of a seven-year-old child by a sex offender living nearby.

There is no evidence, however, to show that the register has had any effect in reducing child sex offences. On the contrary, in California before the law was introduced, 27.3% of convicted abusers re-offended within a year. After the law this increased to 29.3%. A sweep of offenders in San Fernando county found that only 80 out of 300 were still at the addresses where they had registered. The compliance rate of offenders registering in Britain is 97% compared to 80% in the US. Moreover, vigilante attacks have escalated in the US, with 30 serious assaults taking place in Washington this year alone.

top     More resources needed

THE CRIME AND Disorder Act gave the police in England and Wales powers to place further restrictions on sex offenders after they have completed their sentence. Now there are calls to introduce mandatory life sentences for offenders committing a second serious sexual offence. Such proposals raise the question of balancing the civil liberties of an individual and the need to protect children. Getting that balance right is very difficult but what is clear is that cutbacks in services to both offenders and children will increase the dangers and risks. Virtually every local authority has cut back children's services, be it the closure of family centres, children's homes or social workers' jobs. This has reduced the ability of social services departments to protect children at risk. The ongoing drive for the privatisation of council services, including children's homes in some areas, means these services being run for profit, instead of being publicly accountable.


The probation and prison services have also suffered serious cutbacks in recent years. This has meant cutting back monitoring and treatment programmes of offenders, in prison and in the community.

There is no real debate about services to children and young people. Although some extra money has been made available for education (largely targeted at education action zones), there is no extra money for children's social services. Virtually every local authority will be making cuts in its next social services budget.

Awareness of child sexual abuse has advanced beyond recognition since the 1960s. Even as recently as 15 years ago, the government refused to acknowledge such abuse existed on a significant scale. When Michelle Elliott, an American doctor who runs the charity Kidscape, asked the government in the early 1980s to add child sexual abuse to the list of reasons for children being placed on the 'At Risk' register, the response was that the USA may have a problem but that Britain did not have enough cases to justify recognising it. Since then, developments in society have enabled both children and women to speak out more openly against abuse and violence.

However, with over one million people possibly having committed sexual offences of varying degrees, this is clearly a massive social problem. Not excluding action on individual cases, a major campaign is needed to change attitudes so that it is seen as totally unacceptable to abuse or exploit children in any way.

But child sexual abuse will only diminish and be eradicated with a fundamental change in the way society is organised. Capitalism is built on exploitation, power and violence. It warps and distorts human behaviour, leading to all kinds of atrocities. Only in a socialist society would the basis be laid for an entirely different set of relationships, no longer based on power and coercion and free from the exploitation and inequalities so prevalent under the present system.


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