Friday, February 19, 2010

Harsh Truths

The so-called Sarah's Law, allowing random passers-by to quiz the police about the antecedents of others, is a fraud on a massive scale.

It is a scam that the population quite happily goes along with, an exercise in mass-delusion that projects the danger to children as being 'out there'.

It isn't. The next time you gather with your family, realise that it is amongst them that the greatest danger to your kids resides. Not the dodgy bloke outside, not the ice-cream seller or the sports coach, but your own friends and family.

If we really want child protection then it must follow that it is parents - and potential parents - that must be examined by the State. Everybody.

But we cannot allow that to happen. It is a soporific delusion that we buy into, refusing to see the danger as being anything other than the rare stranger. That we ourselves pose the greatest risk to kids is a fact that we just cannot allow to enter our heads. We just stick our fingers in our ears and stamp our feet, anything to drown out the shout of reason, and all the while pointing the fingers at someone else.

This is not an exercise in child protection at all. It is an exercise in self-delusion and denial, an outbreak of stupidity on a monumental scale. This is a matter more for the psychiatric profession than the criminological one.


  1. I worked in child protection for years and all my colleagues were aware of where the most child sexual abuse takes place - i.e. within the family. Ben, you are the first person I am aware of who has been prepared to write this down. Sarah's Law is ridiculous and will only drive the known paedophiles underground and will not in any way protect children from the risks within their families. We should put far more effort into educating children as to what is appropriate behaviour to expect from adults and ensure that all children have learned how to communicate their fears and anxieties to adults, so that they are not afraid to 'tell'.

    The popular newspapers seem only to report abuse by people that are not family members or friends, and they have contributed to the myths that all sexual abuse of children is done by 'outsiders/strangers'.

    Well observed Ben - hope you are feeling less depressed.


  2. It was interesting that when I googled "Preventing Child Harm" that half the top ten results mentioned parents with mental health needs.

    According to the NHS Patient safety agency"The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicides and Homicides reviewed 254 homicide convictions between 1997 and 2004 in England and Wales where children were killed by their biological or step-parents. Of these, 37% had a mental disorder....." A cursory examination of the site indicates that Mental Health organisations co-operate to identify when service users have or resume contact with any children, referring to social services as soon as a problem, suspicion or concern becomes apparent, or if the child’s needs are not being met.

    I can't immediately identify a breakdown of the other 63% of child killing parents. Limiting myself to this issue of mental health needs in parents who murder, if we extended the current provision to include a psychiatric evaluation of all potential parents, would we pick up people who had never been mental health service users but were likely to harm kids? Or would there be a list of triggers which would estimate how urgently you need assessed? Can we see a situation where we had waiting lists to be parents? It would certainly turn the current situation on its head, from parenthood being a right, to a position where it is a privilege. To be honest, that's rather how I think it should be anyway. To take on responsibility for another life, the safety and upbringing of another human, *is* a privilege, so although I can't see people buying it, I honestly cannot see a logically defensible argument against it. There are logistical questions, but then, on the other hand, why not, when I'm having that chat with the doctor and she's checking I'm taking folic acid (preventing potential harm to my unborn/potential child) shouldn't there be a quick risk assessment? I'm sure it needn't take long.

    Do we get into sticky ground on Human rights? While the rights of the child take precedence over mine, do the rights of the potential or unborn child? Do we question whether smokers should be parents? ;)

    I think it was a character in the film Parenthood that said; "You need a license to buy a dog, to drive a car - hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father."

  3. I shouldn't add anything after that, but I will add that I don't think that the quote above applies to only fathers and that the Dads in my immediate vicinity are great :)

  4. You tackle this sensitive subject really well.

    It really sickens me how the media and law enforcing agencies parade about with Sarah's Mum, using her and her family and their grief to shamefully scare people into believing that stranger crime is much greater than it is.

    They must be playing some sort of vicious and vile game with us because whenever their is a serious crime like homicide, the police will always view those immediately around the victim as suspects. Look for example at the case of Madeline MCcann. Yet still they parade this 'Sarah's Law' and force that down our throats.

    Sadly their are some very small minded and fearing people who go along with it. Instead of fearing the ordinary Joe Bloggs of the world, we should fear the law makers and the stupid lies they have us believe.

  5. @ Babs G

    Your proposal assumes that a) a psychiatric evaluation would reliable pick out which mentally ill people are dangers to their children* and that b) mental illness will not develop later. For example, if you screen people before you let them have kids, you're not going to pick up post-partum depression. And if you screen them after and confiscate the children of those with post-partum depression you're going to save a few lives at the expense of massively overburdening the foster care system, subjecting the hundreds of children to unstable environments, and further destabilizing the parents. Even disregarding the 63% you're not going to catch, such a program would do more harm than good.

    Better for people to just be aware that there are no quick fixes for child abuse, and to focus on teaching children to recognize and report such things. (And then BELIEVE THEM when they do. I can't believe some people claim their kids are lying. Do really think a seven year old is making this sh*t up?)

    * 1 in 4 women in the UK will be treated for depression at some point in their life. Almost 1 in 3 will have some mental illness. The vast majority of those women, are never going to hurt their kids. Quite aside from the human-rights aspect, in-depth evaluations of all of them would only result in more slipping through the cracks.

  6. P.S.

    I know you were talking specifically about murders, which is not really what the sceon paragraph of my above comment is about, but even there, I doubt it appears out of nowhere. creating an environment where people pay attention to these things would help with that too.

  7. sorry this is not about this topic

    Ben, I am writing a report on the sentencing of women drug users for university (I am a masters student). I just wondered if you have the time could you write something on that subject please.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Hi Jess
    Fair point, altho it wasn't so much a proposal as an exploration.I think it is interesting you pick up on this area. What proportion of my already limited subset of kid killing parents would be women with PPD? And I don't think taking kids away is the answer. We screen to a degree for PPD now - I remember being asked about it. What processes are followed at present?

  10. I don't actually know what processes are followed at present...and I especially don't know for the UK*, since I live in Canada (though I could probably find out.) The issue of which mentally ill people would be a problem popped up for me in particular because I was raised by a parent with chronic unipolar depression, who is probably the least violent parent I have ever met. (At the same time, I know this is not universal: I have a friend who is terrified to have kids because she's attacked people before during dysphoric eposides.)

    I thought of PPD because when I've read about mothers killing small children (which cases generally get a lot of press on account of being shocking) the rate of PPD reported among the mothers in questions seems disproportionally high. Some of that might be reporting bias (no one wants to think a perfectly sane mother could kill her newborn) but I don't know if all of it is. It's almost midnight where I am, and not only am I not firing on all cylinders, I also have to get to bed if I'm to get up tomorrow, but I'll try and do some research tomorrow so I can comment more intelligently.

    *Not that you're necessarily in the UK, but Ben is so that's where I htink of the blog being located.

  11. Jess @ Babs

    I wonder how many of those parents "with mental health needs" have clear, severe, diagnosable illnesses of the type Jess is describing? I don't have any evidence, but I suspect very few of them would fit into that sort of box very neatly.

    Regardless of the human rights and ethical implications of screening future parents, it's a complete non starter because it could never be done without some sort of enforced sterilization program for everyone without a permit. That is an even bigger rights violation so, in my mind, the debate stops there. I do believe very strongly that we need some sort of organized parenting classes though. And perhaps psychology GSCE should be made compulsory?!

    I think a far better solution is to tackle the taboo surrounding mental health. We also need to be aware that giving various sets of symptoms labels and trying to treat them the same way we would a broken leg just doesn't work for mental illnesses. If we can make it ok to admit you are struggling and ask for help, then perhaps people wouldn't reach breaking point so often.

  12. I think its interesting that there are leaps to taking kids away and sterilisation being made. What about more support for parents? In addition to the education for both parents and kids.

  13. Not a leap, a logical extension :) There's no value to screening and giving a permit to fit parents if you don't stop those without a permit conceiving. If you are suggesting a functioning screening system then you must also be suggesting a program of forced sterilization/contraception for those who fail or are untested. But that is a diversion in the debate and ultimately, yes, I agree, support is the best way. Support and education.

    At the moment we don't do any parenting education at all. It may not stop every case but it would have to help a lot.

  14. I know a single parent mother, who has a thirteen year old son. The son is classified as Autistic, the mother also has mental problems. The mother had problems, even before she met the boys father. Things are starting to get out of hand, they have for a long while. I have mentioned that things are not right to the mother a couple of years ago, and if something was not done soon, disaster would happen. This advice was ignored by the mother.

    Now, the situation is very bad indeed, the boy threatening his mother with knives. The boys school has even had very serious problems with the boy. The Police have even been called on occasions, but nothing has moved on. The mother bates the boy, I have seen this in operation. She is a very annoying woman, and her son knows this.

    It is like watching a movie, but one that has not been written yet. I could write the ending, knowing what I know. The Care System, can't get it's head around the logic of these things until it is too late. Just learn to wipe the blood up, it will be fine, it's only blood!

    The moral of this story is, that the woman was not suitable to have a monogamous relationship with any man. She has some kind of drink related problem, going back many years. If that, along with a mental problem, caused the boys autism, I have no idea? But, what I do know is, things will not stay the same for this mother, and child. It will only get as bad as it is allowed to get! Is this not what always happens, always. Just read the headlines.

  15. First a general correction: I was mistaken in my earlier post. It's not postpartum depression that creates a risk of violence, but postpartum psychosis, which has additional symptoms (delusions, etc.) and is much less common. The case I was thinking of was Andrea Yates, who drowned her five kids in a bathtub (she apparently had several other issues going on at the same time as well.)

    @ Babs G

    In general, when there is a credible risk of harm (particularly violence, particularly *fatal* violence) to children from their parents, the child welfare system responds by moving the child to foster care. In general, if you are going to control which people are allowed to parent (which I assume is what you meant in your original concept by making parenthood a privelige) you need a way to prevent the disallowed from parenting, either with 100% reliable birth-control (not necessarily sterilization: better if it were temporary. But at least, not under the prospective parent's control) or to take the kids away after they're born.

    I think your idea of more support for parents is a great idea. My comments about removing the kids were related specifically to the concept you talked about in your first post. The big problems I can see with the support thing are that mental health, as previously mentioned, is complicated. The support in question would have to be very flexible, and very committed. That means a lot of people, a lot of time, and a lot of emotional investment, which means a high rate of burnout. When I went internet-crawling regarding PPD screening, one of the firstt things I found was that doind it routinely is not cost-effective. Imagine how the people who decided that would feel about not only screening for it, but actually providing reliable support for up to a year afterwards. More likely to make a dent in the problem than you first scenario, yes, and more ethical as well, but equally unlikely.

  16. @ Babs G

    I know I should have asked this in my last post, but what kind of support specifically were you envisioning? And how do you think it would be decided who would get it?

  17. @ Wigarse. I will respectfully continue to disagree. Alternative outcomes for screening are possible, particularly if it identifies people who should be Mental Health services users who are not, and can therefore means they get help. But ultimately, it comes back to a point you made earlier. No one will go for sterilisation to we reach an impasse, which does us no good whatsoever. @Jess slightly less radical effective contraception is perhaps more palatable. @Jess, in terms of support, I think that from a practical perspective any solution has to be an extension of the system we have at present, so more health visitors, and perhaps as I have heard of in other countries, help in the home for particularly over burdened mothers. I understand that there are people who will fall through the cracks, people who avoid visits, families which move around a lot. But surely even an incremental improvement is worthwhile. @Wigarse, I agree that there is little or no systematic education for parents - in my experience it is all voluntary. A thought I keep coming back to is more free nursery places from an earlier age, perhaps 18 months for poorer or more vulnerable kids. Which with limited availability, might mean other less needy kids not getting a space... :(

  18. I agree that providing free nursery places would go a long way towards solving family traumas and would take away the terrible pressure that so many adults with young children face. Maybe we should start a face book campaign about it. Anyone up for it?

  19. @Sophie, was having a think about that. Here in the UK we already have some provision for free nursery places after age 3 (2 and a half I think in some authorities). There have been moves afoot to extend or make this more flexible, but they may be scuppered at the Election. I honestly don't know what the existing provision for low income families is at present here, and would need to look into it further.

  20. @Babs, It would be a good time to start a campaign for free nursery provision for all young children, especially now, since those that govern us are up for election; they ought to know what policies make sense and are popular.

    Aim high, and for what is right.

    I hope we can start a campaign for this, I am sure there will be many supporters ...


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