Comment: Jimmy Savile shows how ignorant we are of child abuse

By Camila Batmanghelidjh

Politicians and their advisors are primarily driven by the need to win votes. Consequently, childhood maltreatment has never achieved priority because children don't vote. Left unnoticed, this national wound is now haemorrhaging. The BBC is gripped by its repercussions, as the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal weaves its horror through our news. Watching on the sidelines are young people from the ghettos, whose delicate lives have been blighted by child abuse for decades, with no-one held accountable and no-one to protest on their behalf. Politicians have, rightly, been vocal about the victims of abuse as a result of one man's deceit. They're calling for public inquiries and lessons to be learned. But where were they when thousands of girls were being sexually abused in street gangs? I didn't hear a call for a public inquiry into the endemic sexual and physical abuse of children across the country.

In fact, repeated governments have underestimated the scale of childhood maltreatment in this country. Ask yourself: how come, out of 670,000 referrals to child protection services a year, only some 49,000 children are subject to a child protection plan? Please consider why almost all of these children are removed from the register within twelve months, so that only 2,700 of them are given continued assistance beyond the year. Think about why some 26% of those who are removed from the child protection register are placed back on it within the year. Could it be that some bureaucrat tried to move them on too rapidly for fear that the list would exceed its allocated quota?

Why is it that repeated governments come into power without even having decided where to place children's social services? It's usually a ping-pong game between health and education, with neither wanting the brief and, eventually, an understated minister being given responsibility for it.

Britain is bottom of the league of 21 wealthiest countries in the world for the wellbeing of children, according to Unicef. The internationally recognised figure for child abuse in this country is 1.5million children. The NSPCC describe one in ten children as having endured child sexual abuse. A recent report by Young Minds announced that one in 12 young people are said to self-harm. The age at which prostitution starts in Britain is 12 and now the children’s commissioner is about to release a report describing the sexual abuse of girls in groups and gangs as being catastrophically endemic.

So you can imagine my ambivalence when Newsnight suggested that perhaps we should consider compulsory reporting of child abuse and the failure to do so as a criminal offence.

If we had robust, efficient and accountable child protection systems, then one could consider such a strategy, bearing in mind the potential to misuse this kind of law. It's too easy to throw unfounded allegations at colleagues, with the intention of causing havoc in their lives.

Just as the human rights of those who have been wrongly accused have to be protected, so do the rights of children who have been maltreated and whose reality has systematically been negated by political cowardice and lack of empathy.

Politicians, on the whole, have lacked passion on the subject of children who are being harmed. Their lives are usually too far removed from the realities of relentless terror. Imagine being a five-year-old too terrified to leave your bedroom for fear of being battered yet again; you lift the carpet and pee into the floorboards. Imagine watching your gang leader burn someone's skin with a lighter; the victim's scream pierces your eardrums, reminding you of the fate you will face should you decide to disobey a command. Imagine sitting with the rumblings of your own belly as you stare into the empty food cupboard; eventually you draw food on a piece of paper and swallow it, hoping that your drug-addicted mother will at some point feed you for real. Few politicians and advisors have lived through such chronic desperation. It's not that they're cruel or intend harm, it's benign ignorance that is devastating and betraying children.

Lack of leadership and lack of investment in long-term solutions in relation to childhood maltreatment is also eroding the wellbeing of our workers. Social care professionals aspire to reach out with potent solutions. When resources are not available to transform lives, it's not just the children who lose hope; workers also become hopeless.

It is only when children tragically die that the nation is woken up to the horrors of child abuse. A public witch-hunt ensues, politicians deflect responsibility by placing the blame on over-stretched workers rather than acknowledging the endemic failings of a system that has barely evolved since the Victorian times. Britain's child protection system is not fit for purpose and its politicians are unfit to face the truth of it.

Will the Jimmy Saville case be the tipping point? Has he, in being a revered member of the establishment, brought the child abuse truth into spaces that are more familiar than the ghettos of Britain? It is, paradoxically, his celebrity and our preoccupation with the celebrity culture that has kept this news alive for some two weeks. It would be a tragedy if this horror story didn't lead to the substantial change of attitude required to make a difference.

Neuroscience is now confirming that both neglect and/or abuse of children leads to changes at neurophysiological levels. Terrorised children develop neuronal pathways similar to those of soldiers traumatised by war. One in five children assessed by independent scientists at Kids Company has been shot at and/or stabbed. Not in a war zone, but on the streets of London. Epigeneticists believe that environmental adversity leads to gene expression which is adaptive to conditions of harm. Violated children adapt to violence so profoundly that their genes are switched on and off in the service of survival. More violence in order to survive violence potentially becomes baseline genetic programming for the next generation.

If this theoretical framework proves to be as potent as is implied, Britain is potentially sitting on top of an emotional time bomb, as violence to children spreads virally, regurgitating itself through the next generation's development. Scientists also believe that child abuse has physical health implications, impacting functioning at molecular levels with adverse consequences presenting in immune, endocrine and cancer medicine.

Over the years I have heard the same excuse again and again for not taking action: it's too big a problem and we don't have funding for it. In the end, not taking action costs us all dearly; whether it's locking kids up in asylums and prisons or paying for riot damage. There is actually a very simple solution, if we have the courage to mobilise it. Let's start with an independent national inquiry into the life chances of vulnerable children, with the intention of looking at child abuse but also its management, prevention and reparation. The inquiry has to be independent of any political party so that its findings cannot be airbrushed. How can anyone have faith in a child protection review when there is failure even to mention one line about childhood maltreatment in the context of street-gangs?

There are a lot of professionals in social work and child mental health departments who feel too frightened to describe the rot within their organisations. They're anxious about losing promotions, being penalised and perceived as troublemakers. These silenced individuals want the chance to speak. They want to place the evidence somewhere safe and neutral so that the necessary systemic changes can be mobilised and the care profession can be improved for vulnerable children, young people and their workers.

Once the inquiry has been completed, best practice can be protected and failing structures can be redesigned. But the reparation requires a long-term vision; therefore all political parties need to make a commitment, ensuring that the national plan for the wellbeing of children is honoured without it becoming a political football. The whole country can be kept informed of progress so that the nation signs up to the reparation and child abuse stops being the national dark secret popping up every so often like an ugly jack-in-the-box to horrify and then be supressed.

Neuroscience is already presenting us with a solution. The evidence shows that the brain is in a constant state of neuroplasticity. The conditions of care and interaction we are exposed to sculpt our brain's capacities and, consequently, our social behaviours. If maltreated children are exposed to robust care, then the possibility of their acquiring mastery over their trauma and going on to achieve is enhanced. The truth that our environments command our biology is the most alarming and yet hopeful message of the decade. There is no room for political complacency. The vulnerable children of this country deserve better. They don't vote but they reflect back the state of the nation more forthrightly than any political discourse. I pray that we’ll have the courage to embrace it. 

With maximum respect to all politicians and advisors who genuinely care.

Camila Batmanghelidjh is founder and CEO of Kids Company

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