Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Why is it so difficult for one of the most civilised and prosperous countries in the world to look after its children and young people?
We rail against the daily tragedies unfolding in Syria and other war-torn countries, where children and their families are suffering terrible injuries and deprivation, yet consciously or unconsciously turn a blind eye to what is happening on our own doorstep.
Barely a day passes without a headline reporting the death or abuse of a child somewhere in the UK, shocking us all, yet sometimes it emerges that neighbours and friends had concerns but didn’t know what to do, or where to go to express them. Worst of all, when those concerns were expressed to authorities, they may have been rejected, and subsequent (always internal) reviews claim that ‘lessons will be learnt’, only for it to happen again.
We’ve had Rotherham and Oxford, Savile, and now allegations of shameful abuse in the football community, ignored for a generation, yet causing a lifetime of emotional pain to victims.
Norfolk County Council is on its third interim Director of Children’s Services in three years, following another Ofsted report “requiring improvement”. Foster carers have been in dispute with the council for years and, despite this being a superficially affluent area, with an excellent university, education leaves much to be desired, with the outgoing Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, citing “terrible standards” in Great Yarmouth’s schools.
According to the Sunday Times, he also condemned Birmingham City Council as a “rotten borough, beyond redemption, whose powers to run schools and social services should be overhauled because children are at risk”, stating this had been his greatest concern during his five years in office. (These criticisms are denied by the Cabinet member, who cited progress with vulnerable children and in education, recently affirmed by Ofsted).
One of the worst things, however, right across the UK, is the growth in peer to peer bullying which is reaching epidemic proportions, with the NSPCC reporting 25,000 children contacting them last year, and Childline seeing a 13% increase.
We’ve all experienced some form of bullying, but modern technology makes it easier to victimise someone through social media, with endless criticism of how someone looks, what they say, their inherent shyness or poor sporting prowess. Unable to respond, victims become isolated and shunned for no real reason and, eventually, the communal “whipping boy”, with 19,000 under 18s being hospitalised for self-harming, and boys especially vulnerable to suicide, propelled by an inability to share their despair at the mindless hate which destroys their lives.
The mother of one such teenage boy, who took his life earlier this year following years of abuse which started in primary school, despite all his efforts to make friends, says that there has to be early intervention and support for kids, raising awareness in schools, amongst children, as well as staff – and parents, who don’t know how to deal with it and have little or no conception of what drives the perpetrators and the potentially dire consequences.
It is happening everywhere, “hundreds are not talking about it, are shamed by it… there is so much hopelessness about bullying, but we have to bring back kindness,” she says, suggesting that the Department of Education “needs to get on top of this issue. There has to be early intervention and support for affected kids, and their abusers.”
Bullying is not confined to school, however, and home life can be equally debilitating for many.
As evidenced by two recent celebrity biographies, difficulties can affect families across the social spectrum, with adults from all walks of life equally vulnerable to work stress, alcohol, drugs, or difficult relationships resulting in violence to each other and their children.
The scars of what happens behind closed doors may not always be physical; emotional neglect is as bad, with a child’s fear of threatening behaviour and a lack of sibling comfort and parental love remaining with it for ever, affecting future relationships. Fear manifests itself in a number of ways, not least an inability to trust people and make friends easily; it may also translate into bullying behaviour.
So, engaging children in sport and the Arts (painting, music, theatrical performances) and gardening, can help them gain confidence, and put things in perspective. Encouraging affected young people to become mentors can also help to create a mutual support network, sharing experiences and accessing counselling to refute the cruelty.
With clubs and even churches now appointing Safeguarding leads, councils need to raise greater awareness of what to look out for right across their communities and through the media – reminding everyone of their responsibilities. As Safeguarding Policy clearly states:
“Everyone who comes into contact with children (anyone under 18) and their families/carers has a role in safeguarding children…. and should consider what is in the best interests of the child… identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action…..safeguarding means protecting children’s welfare and preventing maltreatment.”
Christmas is a good time to remember that children deserve to be happy, and spoilt, as they grow to maturity – not to be so scared that they eventually throw themselves off a bridge, or let a speeding train send them to oblivion.