Friday, 6 August 2010

On ContactPoint and Abuse

Today the new government "switched off" ContactPoint, the 11 million name national child database created after the horrible abuse and death of Victoria Climbie in 2000. I am very glad it did.

(How I love that term "switched off", by the way: £235 million to set up, services thrown into turmoil at God knows what extra cost, yet another root and branch reinvention of what public professionals do, their reputation dragged through the mud in the process, and you just ... switch it off!)

Anyway, Despite My Warnings At The Time, ContactPoint was and remained unanimously supported by all the organisations I have worked for and alongside, and most colleagues I have worked with. I fully expect them to be unanimous in rejecting it now. I admire consistency, and they have been consistently unanimous. Well done.

Now that we all agree, here are a few points that I've also been consistent about since the plan was hatched:

Firstly, that governments - not newspapers or public opinion - should make policy, that extreme cases taken out of context make for bad policy, and that the obsession with the elimination of all risk should not trump common sense in either policy or practice.
Secondly, that the Climbie investigation showed that it was mostly the failure by social workers to follow procedures that contributed to her death, not the procedures themselves. So why did we go to all this trouble, expense and inconvenience in the first place?
Thirdly, that the rarity of cases like Climbie and Baby P in a nation with a population approaching 60 million might actually show that care services are working rather well and not the reverse.
Fourthly, given that no professional will want to be fingered for missing a possible case of abuse in the current climate (and given the alarming ways in which 'abuse' is given meaning with which I continue this piece), was it ever right to open every child in this country to well-meaning interference by putting them all on a national database?

Which brings me to Abuse more widely in the context of the general demand, not limited to social care, that we eliminate all risk (not, I stress, minimise it; eliminate it).

'Abuse' is imagined and sought everywhere these days. The term is caught up in a vicious circle: firstly it is deployed with elasticity, then it becomes anchored in a disputable meaning, then it is defended and asserted rigidly - while still being used elastically. It has fairly recently been extended to include 'financial abuse', which I presume by now covers stopping pocket money for drowning the hamster and then feeding it to the cat. But I want to talk about parental smacking.

I once challenged a trainer from a national charity who had asserted that more than a third of all people are abused at some time in their lives. Once the room's collective intake of breath had subsided and a couple of people had been carried from it, I asked him, not very scientifically, if he really meant that at least 12 of the 36 adults present were likely to have been or would at some time be abused. He replied without hesitation that it was probably more. My colleagues were once again unanimous - in their silence.

Whereas I, of course, had been naive and inattentive to recent developments. For 'abuse' now includes, among other things, parental smacking - of any kind, at any time, regardless of immediate and wider contexts and the quality of the overall parent-child relationship - with all the consequences that follow from trying to police it, one of which is the national database that has just been 'switched off' so summarily.

As a result, I sit through meeting after meeting with my head in my hands as I hear earnest, well-meaning people (mostly women: the feminization of discourse within the caring services deserves a brave researcher to examine it) unquestioningly lament the scourge of Abuse as if there were no difference between an occasionally smacked juvenile bum and a regularly violated one.

But there is. We need to be more careful when talking about 'abuse', as about many other things, than we are.

The best writer on this aspect of the risk society is Frank Furedi. Anyone who simultaneously wins the praises of Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton is OK by me.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellently-put. Can you submit it as an op-ed somewhere? I'm serious. You're right in that you'll never be listened to at a serious policy level, but I honestly think it's important to get our voices out there regardless. I'm not _always_ patient with Furedi (although I am most of the time), but he is clear and brave, and of course Eagleton can do no wrong by me, which is probably a weakness on my part. I met the great man once, you know. He remarked that I looked Irish. I was a bit disappointed, I admit.