Is ‘thought abuse’ about to become the fifth category of child abuse?

Following a Community Care Live session on radicalisation, social work professor Ray Jones worries about "mission creep" in child protection

By Ray Jones

Community Care Live in London in early November was exciting, energising and educative. With more than 3,000 colleagues from across social work and social care participating in a jam-packed programme there were loads of opportunities for learning and reflection.

I attended a crowded session on ‘the key role of social workers in preventing radicalisation’. I wanted to understand how this new responsibility for social workers was developing and being rolled out. I was spooked by what I heard!

Firstly, the keynote panellist from the Home Office positioned this new role for social workers as nothing new. It is what social workers have always done in protecting and safeguarding vulnerable children and adults. It had always, we were told, been central and core to the child protection agenda. Recognising concerns that children and young people might be exposed to radical thoughts, and then motivated to take action themselves, was something that we were told has always been a part of child protection.

Secondly, the police officer who gave a presentation and was one of the panellists emphasised that the Prevent agenda was not only about Islamic radicalisation and extremism but also applied to animal rights and other forms of radicalisation including right-wing extremism (I presume ‘radicalisation’ as a generic category also includes those concerned and taking action about capitalism, environmental issues, and racial and disability discrimination).

The Home Office presenter and the police officer both gave examples of how radicalisation could fit in with the four existing categories of child abuse – neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. For example, the police officer highlighted that, in some cases, sexual abuse could be a concern when young girls were travelling to Syria with dreams of marrying fighters. But I do not believe they adequately addressed how radical thinking which might lead to radical action should be categorised – and why it should be treated as a child protection concern.

‘Mission creep’

The identification of young people who might have ‘radical’ thoughts is an extension of the role and responsibility of social workers. It is an example of ‘mission creep’ where the state uses existing roles and mechanisms for a different purpose. It is a potential politicisation of child protection.

I am concerned as anyone else about the threat of terrorist attack. This is an issue of crime and community safety and should be dealt with as such.

I am concerned about children and young people finding their way, or being taken, to war zones. But net widening this to a more broadly defined ‘radicalisation’ and child protection issue causes me considerable concern.

Is there now to be a fifth category of child abuse – ‘thought abuse’ – to be added to the existing four categories of child abuse? And are children, young people and ‘vulnerable adults’ to be targeted and tracked for what they might do in the future based on their radical concerns, thoughts and contacts when to date they have done nothing threatening or dangerous?

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London.

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2 Responses to Is ‘thought abuse’ about to become the fifth category of child abuse?

  1. Andy West November 14, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    I share the concerns of Ray Jones and am surprised that there have been no other comments on this article given the implied extension of the role of social care in this area.

    If correctly reported the Home Office view that the radicalisation of young people has always been part of child protection is a load of rubbish which I suspect is just said to justify a limited amount of additional resources being put in. This is a feature of most “advances” over the years where the provision of resources for its implentation trails far behind the implementation of the “advance.”

    For instance the recent furore about child sexual exploitation. As a social worker of 37 years I have always been aware of our difficulty in responding in this are of work. Social care and the police are not alone in having an ambivalent attitude towards adolescents (saints or sinners) and certainly there has never been the sufficient provision of resources to enable the concentrated and intensive work that needs to be done with young adults who already feel disenfranchised, powerless and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation.

    Secondly it is of concern that the police officer considered that the issue of “radicalisation” is equally applicable to all forms of radical thought. This seems to me to be a dramatic extension of state intervention. So often governments (which is where I imagine all this originates from) make policy almost on the hoof. It is not only social care that should take the time to reflect upon what they do.

    One wonders where the boundaries are of young people being deemed to espouse radical thought-I remember when i was in my late teens I was developing thoughts that I matured and thought through. What would have happened if someone had deemed I was at risk of putting my thoughts into some sort of action. When I trained as a social worker I remember there was a great concern about young people being stigmatised and the consequences of this for confirming them in the behaviour. Is this not a possibility with the prevent agenda?

    I also wonder what happens to young people who are selected as being in danger of being seduced into putting their thoughts into action. Where is the provision that will be given to them and what form does it take?

    What are the dangers of young people feeling they can’t talk about their thoughts for fear that they will be deemed to be vulnerable to exploitation. No doubt if they are in contact with radicalising elements they will be encouraged to distrust other adults around them.

    What are the dangers of over identification. After all in the blame culture that exists, with the possibility of professionals being jailed for neglecting to report their concerns will there not be a tendency to over report in order to protect themselves. For the young people where does the line lie between encouraging critical thought and using the child protection apparatus as a way of suppressing this.

    It would be encouraging if those who had some sense of a historical and sociological perspective were given more opportunity to feed into the debate at present as this could give some perspective and opportunity to reflect further before jumping into a knee jerk response.

    These are just preliminary thoughts about a system that seems to have been introduced with little discussion. So much seems to be nowadays. A “problem” is identified , a “solution” is rushed into, there is little provision for its implementation and suddenly we find ourselves following more procedures and any criticism of it is frowned upon-because it has to be the right thing-doesn’t it?

  2. JP Meadows November 16, 2015 at 7:29 pm #

    Although far from requiring intervention from the authorities (quite the opposite in fact); children have been systematically radicalised for nearly 2000 years in Britain. In what is called “a Christian upbringing”.