Have 425,000 children really been abused during the past two years? That is the extraordinary claimSUGGESTED in a report put out earlier this week by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, which was swallowed whole by the Today programme and many newspapers. Not even the normally-inquisitive John Humphrys raised the slightest doubt about the figure when he interviewed a woman who said she had been abused back in the 1960s.
The more you dig into the data, though, the more that the estimate of 425,000 child abuse victims comes across as a pure fantasy figure. It is based on a statistical method called Multiple Systems Estimation, which involves totting up the number of reported cases of child sex abuse reported to police, social services and voluntary bodies and then trying to eliminate the overlap – in other word takeACCOUNT of the inevitability that a child recorded by the police as having been abused is also likely to have been reported to social services. From this ‘“dark figure” of victims’ who have not come to the attention of authorities is estimated.
The figure it produces is highly questionable because, as Longfield concedes, it ‘depends on assumptions that cannot be fully verified’. The figure is followed by an admission that ‘this represents all forms of child sexual abuse, not only child sexual abuse in the family environment’. The report itself, however, is entitled ‘Protecting children from harm: a critical assessment of child sex abuse in the family network in England and priorities for action’ – so the emphasis is on sex abuse within families. ThePRESS RELEASE which introduces this report, however, does not make clear that the 425,000 figure is highly speculative and in any case refers to all sexual abuse, by adults and other children included. What the press release does assert though is that the report ‘reveals that theVAST majority of sexual abuse (66 per cent) takes place within the home or its trusted circle’.
Small wonder, then, that Longfield’s claim has been reported as if we are a nation of kiddy-fiddlers fiddling with our own kids – a dramatic picture which echoes previous child abuse scandals – or rather non-child abuse scandals – involving Dr Marietta Higgs in Cleveland and the allegations of a satanic abuse circle in the Orkneys.