Last week’s report from the NSPCC, on the under-reporting of crimes alleged to have been committed by Jimmy Savile, illustrated some key issues that stand outside of the particular circumstances of his case. Here, CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy considers the wider safeguarding implications:
The NSPCC report was prepared in response to a request from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. Its conclusions are based on a series of focus groups held with people who had come forward to make allegations during the Savile Inquiry.
In keeping with protocols established around the Savile case, the individuals concerned are referred to as victims throughout the report. In all, 57 people agreed to participate in the focus groups, of the 160 initially approached by the NSPCC. In the end 26 victims participated in 5 focus groups. Of those, 4 had been adults at the time of the alleged assaults.
Each focus group included at least 2 men to ensure gender balance, and each involved victims from a range of the locations in which Jimmy Savile operated. Each focus group lasted for a maximum of 4 hours.
Much of the focus of media interest in the Savile case, has been on the difficulties of establishing guilt, when the alleged perpetrator is dead, and on the length of time that has elapsed since many of the incidents occurred.
A great deal has also been written about the influence of celebrity status, in encouraging people to come forward. All of these concerns have been given further spins in the media machine, by the emergence of the now familiar series of cases involving other high profile figures from the past.
And as that machine churns on, we see the focus even begin to draw in the activities of organisations such as the former National Council for Civil Liberties, and their erstwhile connections with the Paedophile Information Exchange.
There is a strangely perverse danger in all of this that the real focus of our concern – on children and young people at risk of serious abuse – and the need for balance in the way we approach those situations, will be lost in a sea of recriminations about perpetrators.
I believe we have many strengths in our safeguarding systems, alongside some real weaknesses – remember Rochdale. Nonetheless, I think much has been learned since the Savile era, including a great deal of reflection on the balance between protective activity and wider individual rights.
We are now in a period where that balance is at risk from vocal commentators on opposite sides of the argument – with some portraying child abuse as easy to deal with by removing children and being tougher on perpetrators; and with others saying it’s easy to deal with, by stopping the removal of children from loving families.
So with all that said, what are some of the lessons in the NSPCC report, about people who have now reported abuse – often as children – and which stand outside of the question of the eventual guilt, or otherwise, of the accused? And, in particular, which of them re-enforce other messages about practice in these kinds of circumstance?
As children, people in the NSPCC focus groups weren’t always sure if what they were experiencing was abuse. That means those with caring responsibilities need to be alert to signs of discomfort, and to be able to initiate ‘open’ conversations with children.
Few of the people involved thought they could report crimes independently to the police. That means we need to give children clarity on their rights, and ensure that they understand their potential relationship with the police. That has implications for the education system, as a whole, since knowing, in advance, who it is that will need to exercise those rights, is impossible.
Many of the group participants felt that they wouldn’t be believed – perhaps partly because of Jimmy Savile’s celebrity and do-gooding status – but also simply because he was an adult. That means we have to be prepared to believe children, and convince them that they will be taken seriously – a practice still far from universally in place, if you read the Children’s Commissioner’s report on child sexual exploitation.
There was a common feeling, amongst focus-group participants, of being alone – that they were the only ones experiencing abuse. That means we need to have systems to ensure that where there are serial offenders or groups of offenders, we can identify patterns quickly and reassure children that they may be sharing a wider experience. But it also means that we need to be able to help children, subject to individual abuse, to know that they are not alone in their experience – or, even somehow, guilty of encouraging it.
I’m sorry if these are points that appear too obvious or repetitive, but it seems to me that there is little point in seeking the views of those who say they were abused and who feel they have been let down by the system, if we don’t hear the messages they want to convey, however much we may believe that they have been heard before. And, besides, evaluations of safeguarding practice show that hearing messages, and being able to act on them, are not always mutually assured.