The child protection system is ignoring background risk factors such as broken families because it fears stigmatising children, a social policy expert has warned.
The circumstances of seventeen-month-old Baby Peter’s death at the hands of his mother and live-in boyfriend were “typical of the average ‘at risk’ child”, says Jill Kirby, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
She lists “background factors” common to children listed on the child protection register, including “having a mother who was a teenage lone parent, the presence of an unrelated male in the household, a history of domestic violence, a parent with a criminal record or a history of mental illness and substance abuse”.
Yet in order to avoid stigmatising families the system may be overlooking thousands of children in such circumstances, Mrs Kirby warns.
This approach has seen child protection lumped in as “part of a continuum of services to children and families”, and the resulting complexity of the system has meant “resources are drawn away from children most in need”.
Mrs Kirby says common sense tells us the majority of children will not experience neglect or abuse, but believes the true figure of those who are at risk is much higher than the 30,000 currently identified.
“Attending to the needs of those children is a big task,” she says, “but it will not be helped by attempting to pretend they are no different from the other 10.5 million”.
The tragedy of the death of Baby Peter, now identified as Peter Connelly, prompted warnings about the higher risk of child abuse where families have broken down.
When the news first emerged Iain Duncan Smith, head of the Centre for Social Justice think tank, pointed out that children in single parent households are three to six times more likely to suffer abuse.
“This problem is further aggravated,” he wrote, “by the increasing phenomenon of non-biological guesting or substitute fathers.”
“Children living with their natural mother and a guest father are eight times more likely to be on the at-risk register”, he added.
However, there are concerns that much of the evidence for this link has been suppressed because of a reluctance to criticise non-traditional family structures.
Statistics collected by Government departments can be examined by age, sex, type of abuse, local authority area and ethnicity, but not family type.
Commenting on the issue in her Spectator blog, respected British journalist Melanie Phillips called it a “buried truth” you wouldn’t see reported by the British media.
She wrote: “The evidence that shattered or reconstituted families pose vastly greater risks to children than traditional two-parent families has always been overwhelming.
“But in Britain, the government simply stopped collecting statistics that broke down families by type which enabled researchers to compare violence and other ill-effects in different types of household.
“This blurred the distinction between parents and parent-substitutes, and enabled the lie to be told that children were in more danger from their parents than from strangers.
“The truth is that natural parents provide the greatest safety for children, and it is the reconstituted family which poses the greatest danger. The deliberate concealment of that truth has been used to justify the breakdown of family life whose catastrophic ill-effects are only now beginning to be acknowledged.”