A leading children’s charity has defended former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith after he was accused of distorting a neuroscientist’s research on the impact of childhood neglect on brain development.
Dr Bruce Perry, head of the Child Trauma Academy in Texas, told The Guardian that the MP – who referenced Perry’s research in a private speech on crime to his think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice – had “oversimplified” and “distorted” his findings by implying that neglect or family breakdown could lead to changes in brain size and development.
Dr Perry told The Guardian that his research was based on the most severe and extreme cases of neglect, such as children kept in locked basements without human contact.
He said: “I do believe that overstating and misunderstanding the neurobiology can lead to confusion, anger, distortion and potentially to bad policy.”
But Laurence Guinness, head of campaigns at the charity Kids Company, said Duncan Smith was right to highlight the wider issues on neglect.
Guinness said: “Iain Duncan Smith should be commended for trying to raise awareness of the neurophysiological and psychological harms often caused by child maltreatment and its potentially devastating lifelong consequences. These are highly complex issues that are often difficult to accurately communicate in the media.”
Samantha Callan, chairman in residence at the Centre for Social Justice, said: “There’s always a tension between the way in which academics and politicians use research. It’s not that Iain is trying to make the research say more than it should, but that the implications of it for policy must be debated.
“If extreme neglect affects brain size and development, we must consider what impact a lesser degree of neglect could have. Basically what Iain is saying is that, given what we know about extreme neglect and the prevalence of dysfunction in our society, we need to take action to know more.”
Felicity de Zulueta, head of the Trauma Clinic at the Maudsley Hospital, London, said Duncan Smith was a great admirer of Perry and was “doing something heroic by trying to highlight important research about the impact of neglect”.
De Zulueta said it was unfortunate that Duncan Smith had appeared to “overplay” the extreme cases of changes in brain size, which she felt might undermine evidence that abuse and neglect can affect brain impairment.
She said: “We must not let the argument about extreme neglect destroy the importance of evidence about how early neglect, abuse and trauma can affect children’s behaviour very powerfully – such as their ability to empathise and their capacity for violence.”
“Early intervention is the most effective tool we have at our disposal.”