Children’s interests and protection will only be advanced when
adults stop treating them as parents’ personal property and start
listening and believing what they say, writes Peter White.
Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were being vetted as
potential foster-parents. During the process, I became friendly
with the social worker handling our case. One day over a drink he
said: “The trouble with you lot [he meant the press, of course] is
that you don’t cover the stories that really need covering – or
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “the biggest untold story in this country is
the level of sexual abuse within families. Incest is simply
I was frankly incredulous. I knew it went on, of course, I
wasn’t that naive, but he explained to me that it was often an
undeclared and underlying element in the cases he was dealing with,
masked by more obvious and less socially taboo subjects.
Of course, it is more openly spoken and written about now than
it was, but it seems to me that we are still hampered by our past
ignorance or our wilful refusal to see what was under our noses. We
have turned it into a “modern” problem, a consequence of so much
family breakdown, of many step-families, of transitory
relationships when in fact if we recognised the extent to which it
has always been present we might get closer to spotting the signs
within families and be able to do more to prevent it.
Of course there have always been people who have known but they
are not the kind of people who get listened to.
I discussed this article with my daughter, now aged 24.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “there were at least half a dozen girls in
my class at primary school who we knew were being ‘messed about
She went on to tell me about one classmate who came into school
one day with bruises all down one side of her body. “What
happened?” I asked.
“What did the school do? Nothing” she said, “I don’t think they
wanted to get involved. Probably scared to.”
And she was probably right. The conspiracy of silence was then
all-pervasive. The only people who really seemed to know were some
of the children’s friends, but I suspect they never thought to tell
us about it. They assumed we would not believe them.
Just a couple of years ago I did a series for Radio 4 called
Silent Sentence. It was about the effect on innocent
people of having a family member sent to prison. In the process of
making it, I listened to many distressing stories, but the thing
which shocked me most was the parents of children who had been able
to delude themselves into thinking that “nothing was going on” when
a partner was blatantly abusing their child.
I know all the rational arguments about people finding it
impossible to believe something so terrible about your partner,
about the manipulative and self-protective power of abusers and
about the fear of confrontation, but I still find astonishing the
lengths to which the mind will go to deny what seems in retrospect
so glaringly obvious.
And the awful thing about this is that the children who suffered
in silence at the time or who went unbelieved often go on suffering
in silence now, partly because they still doubt whether they will
be believed and partly because it has become a habit to
I’m afraid that for as long as Britain is a society which does
not regard children as all our business this will go on. Despite
more child-centred legislation there is still an underlying feeling
that parents own their children and that “you don’t interfere”.
We also still regard removing children from their natural
parents as a last resort. It is not a view I share. We have to get
rid of the idea that parents have unearned rights over their
children. We hear an awful lot about administrative and judicial
decisions being made “in the best interests of the child”.
I’m not sure we know too much about what those “best interests”
Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs