New Longitudinal Study Finds Epidemic of Fear, Not an Epidemic of Child Abuse

When a longitudinal study of children in California found that they are more likely to be reported as allegedly being abused or neglected over five years than over just one, this led to some remarkable leaps of logic. It was suggested that the study shows “child maltreatment is a far larger societal epidemic than we’ve previously thought” and “a reckoning is coming in child protection.”

I’ve previously noted that it isn’t exactly a surprise to find more of something when Shocked graphicyou follow a population for five years than when you follow it for one.

But the other problem is assuming that a whole lot of people picking up the phone to report their slightest suspicion of any form of “maltreatment” means that there is actually an epidemic of child abuse.

A new longitudinal study has been released in Britain that has some results similar to the California study. While there are some differences both in terminology and in the process for handling reports about children deemed “at risk,” this study found that 22.5 percent of English children – about 150,000 – are reported to child welfare authorities by the age of five. And 75 percent of those 150,000 children will be subject to some sort of government intrusion into their family lives.

Since well over half of all such reports, known in England as “referrals,” occur between ages 5 and 18, it’s easy to see that the proportion of families subject to this intrusion over the course of the child-rearing years is staggering. And this is an average figure.  One can only imagine how often this happens to families in impoverished communities.

One could, of course, interpret this as meaning England is a cesspool of depravity where a “societal epidemic” of child abuse is so huge that the majority of parents abuse their children.

BabyPheadline But the authors, Professors Andy Bilson and Katie Martin of the University of Central Lancashire School of Social Work, offer a more sensible interpretation: It’s an epidemic of fear, not an epidemic of child abuse.

The number of referrals, investigations and children taken from their homes and placed in foster care in England all have shot up since 2008. There is no evidence that child abuse skyrocketed in this time. On the contrary, sexual abuse remained largely unchanged and physical abuse actually decreased.

The increase in the English equivalent of “substantiation” was almost entirely in the areas of “neglect” and “emotional abuse” – a particular paradox since a child abuse investigation often is, in itself, emotionally abusive for a child.

And while reports we would call “substantiated” increased by 40.4 percent, reports we could label “unfounded” more than doubled.

The real reason for the increases in reports and in foster care is largely a result of a nationwide foster-care panic resulting from a notorious child abuse death in London in 2007, known as the “Baby P case,” and other cases in Britain.

As Bilson told the Times of London: “The tragic deaths of children . . . and desperation not to be the one who misses the early signs next time have led to a climate of suspicion with child protection investigations spiraling.”

Or, as one newspaper headline more succinctly put it: “150,000 Kids on Baby P. Fear List.”

In addition to the harm to families needlessly investigated, Bilson said that the high number of reports makes it harder for caseworkers to identify the small group of children in genuine danger. And, he says, there is no evidence that skyrocketing numbers of reports and the increase in foster care have done anything to make children safer. Indeed, for at least four years after the Baby P. case made headlines, child abuse deaths increased.

The study concludes:

These policies bring high levels of suspicion, fear and shame on a considerable proportion of families in the most deprived areas where this activity is concentrated. 

This is done without evidence that the individualised, investigative approach is effective in preventing further harm. Alternatives include a more humane developmental social work orientation and approaches that promote cohesion in neighbourhoods and reduce deprivation and poverty. But, to achieve this, we need to step away from our current preoccupation with the search for ever more parents to investigate and blame.

That’s hard to do in the midst of an epidemic of fear.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).