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24 March 1999

Spreading suspicion

Tiffany Jenkins points out the dangers of the NSPCC's 'Full stop campaign'

Over the coming week every household in Britain will receive a pledge form from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), as part of the largest mail shot ever carried out by a charity. The NSPCC has also launched a TV and billboard advertising campaign described by many as harrowing and shocking. The press launch for this new 'Full stop campaign' to 'eradicate all child abuse' was hosted by Cilla Black and attended by Tony Blair, Prince Andrew and Baby Spice, all pledging to 'do all I can to help stop cruelty to children'.

Nobody could object to the aim of ending child abuse and neglect - but there is much about the NSPCC's campaign which is worrying. The danger is that it will increase suspicion among adults and make things worse for children.

The NSPCC campaign implies that we are all somehow complicit in child abuse - that somebody always knows about it but 'turns away'. 'Please don't close you eyes to cruelty to children', the advert declares in the national press. To spell out the NSPCC's point, columnist Deborah Orr argues that 'hundreds, thousands of people must have known or suspected that dreadful things were happening within the West family. Not only did these people not alert the authorities, they also embraced the chaos and anarchy in that household'. Should we really accept that half of the people of Gloucester have blood on their hands because of what took place in one depraved household?

Such an approach can only increase suspicion and fear, both of which have a destructive impact on relations between people and within families themselves. Far from being a dark secret, stories of child abuse and neglect are never out of the news. Child abuse awareness is at an all-time high, and hardly a single interaction between adult and child goes unscrutinised. Men shy away from touching and cuddling children. Male nurses have been told not to cuddle their patients for fear of it being interpreted as 'inappropriate'. In 1996, 160,000 families were investigated for suspected abuse, and over half of them were dropped when there was no evidence to continue, and left to rebuild their lives. Even in private many parents are over-anxious about how they deal with their children - fathers are wary of bathing their children and parents are concerned about 'appropriate' kissing and cuddling.

The 'Full stop campaign' will push people to be even more suspicious - to view everybody as a potential abuser. The general response to the campaign revealed how successful it has been in suggesting that all adult and children relationships should be looked on with suspicion. From the Times to the Independent journalists demonstrated their loathing of ordinary parents and their support for more investigation, with one columnist arguing that the reason children are abused is because 'anyone can have them' (Independent, 17 March). The one honourable exception to all this was Richard Ingrams in the Observer, who pointed to the NSPCC's bad track record for accurate investigation.

This overarching suspicion about the relationships between adults and children does nothing to help the children. It has a negative impact on the relationships they have with their parents and other friendly adults, many of whom are too worried to get close to children for fear of being suspected of abuse. It also sends a message to children to suspect all adults, suggesting they should be concerned and suspicious instead of trusting. It is unhealthy when all we see between adults and children is the potential for damage and abuse. The NSPCC's 'Full stop campaign' should go no further.

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