Imagine you have a really bad back. You go to the doctors, but instead of examining you properly, he says that he’s sorry you are in discomfort, before writing a prescription for some strong painkillers. The painkillers help numb the pain somewhat, but the problem persists, and the reason for this is that you actually have a slipped disc – something you find out only after going to another doctor for a second opinion. The remedial action – an operation – unsurprisingly turns out to be more effective than the pills.
Now imagine that you have a society where child abuse and neglect is on the rise. So much so that there is estimated to be about 15,500 cases this year alone in the courts, up from 6,613 a decade ago. Now imagine that instead of examining the situation properly, looking into the root of the problem, we simply wring our hands and call for more efficient ways of handling these cases in the courts. Like the pill they might have an effect in managing a bad situation, but will they have any effect on the underlying causes?
A report in Wednesday’s Times on the increase of abuse and neglect cases is yet another pill. It cites Sir James Munby, President of the family division of the High Court, who warns of an imminent crisis in the legal system fuelled by a surge in cases involving children at risk of abuse. According to Sir James, the number of care cases has more than doubled in ten years and could reach as many as 25,000 by 2019. The reasons for the rise are complex, he says, but possible causes include local authorities becoming more adept at identifying abuse, councils lowering their threshold for intervening so that they step in sooner, and a real increase in child abuse and neglect.
There is undoubtedly much truth in the first two points. In the wake of high profile cases such as the systematic abuse and murder of Peter Connelly, local authorities and councils have clearly increased their vigilance. But what of the third cause – a real increase in abuse and neglect. Where does that stem from? Unfortunately, Sir James doesn’t go into this, but instead focuses on better managing of the court system to cope with the increase, such as “better use of judicial resources,” “shorter court documents,” and “better management of case hearings”. A pill if ever there was one!
If he’s right that there has been a real increase in abuse and neglect, how much do we, as a society, care? Do we care enough to look at the root of the problem? Or do we only care about it enough to try to tackle the consequences that arise because of the increase? And if we say we are interested in getting to the root cause, why don’t we ever come out and actually say what that is? Do we really not know? Or is it impolite to mention it?
Well, impolite or not, here it is. We have seen an increase in cases of abuse or neglect over the years, because we have fought a war against the institution that is designed to protect children: the family, and in particular marriage. This war turns out to have a number of casualties, and sadly children are on the front line. Of course it doesn’t have the same consequences across the board. Abuse and neglect are still thankfully relatively rare. Yet it is obviously going to be the case that if a society goes about destroying the institutions which are designed for the protection of children, a significant number of children will be relieved of that protection entirely and end up suffering neglect or abuse.
Now I know how some will respond to that. Are you saying that all single parents neglect or abuse their children? Nope. Clearly such an assertion would be absurd. Are you saying that all children in married families are safe? Nope. Again, such a claim would be ludicrous. All of these standard objections are little red-herrings sent to obfuscate the real issue, which is to ask the simple question: what type of family situation is likely to provide the best protection for children?
What we are talking about is statistical norms, and what they consistently show is that children living in homes where both biological parents are present are less likely to experience abuse and/or neglect than children who live in households where one of the biological parents is absent.
A 2009 study in the US, for instance, found that families living with a man who was not the biological father of all the children in the home, and families living without a man in the home, were significantly more likely to be contacted by Child Protective Services (CPS) than families in which the biological father of all the children lived with the mother. A 2010 report on the National Incidence Study of Abuse and Neglect in the US found that children whose single parent had a live-in partner were ten times more likely to experience abuse and eight times more likely to experience neglect than children living in homes with both biological parents.
We really shouldn’t need studies to tell us this. As I said above, marriage and the family are designed, at least in part, for the protection of children. Remove that protection and what is likely to happen?
The huge rise in abuse cases mentioned by Sir James Munby should sober us all up. Are we in need of more pills to numb us against the truth of what we’re doing? Do we need more facile sticking plasters to cover huge wounds that our society has opened up with its war on the family? Are we yet prepared to face up to the root causes? Or do we need to wait until that 15,500 figure becomes 25,000 or even 50,000 before we finally repent and begin rebuilding the institutions that offer the surest protections for children?