David Quinn

Thursday 24 July 2014

We need to know that the State is using its child-protection powers in a responsible way

Published 04/07/2014|02:30

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Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 charges
Rolf Harris was found guilty of 12 charges

IN 1996, Rolf Harris, convicted this week on multiple counts of sexual assault, some involving children, was taking part in a pre-recorded TV interview.

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Harris took it upon himself to run his fingers along the elastic of his interviewer's underwear. He also ran his hand up her thigh towards her buttocks.

All of this was done in front of the TV crew. The woman herself said she was "extremely shocked" by his action but felt unable to confront him.

As this newspaper also reported on Tuesday: " ... while he [Harris] was loved by the public at large, in media and television circles he was regarded with a certain suspicion. He had a reputation for the tasteless remark, the hand lingering a little longer on a female colleague's arm than was strictly appropriate".

The fascinating part of all this is that none of it made its way into the public domain.

The case of Jimmy Savile is of course much worse than that of Harris. In the case of Savile lots of complaints were made against him to the appropriate authorities including the police and nothing was done to restrain, much less detain him.

But in the great majority of cases, Savile's behaviour wasn't reported to anyone at all. He was simply allowed to continue his rampage for years and years completely unimpeded.

It is now absolutely clear that fame and power and status can come with a sort of mantle of invulnerability.

This is paradoxical because fame can also make your life public property. However, it seems that if you're sufficiently popular with the public, or else occupy a position in society that is very highly revered (as the priesthood used to be), then people become scared to expose you.

It's the person's power that intimidates. What will happen if I expose that person, you ask yourself? Will I suffer? Will the public turn on me? Will that person be able to use their position of power to damage my livelihood and reputation? Will anyone believe me?

The media ask themselves the same questions; the French suppressed for years the stories about the sexual marauding of one of the country's most powerful political figures, Dominque Strauss-Kahn.

The totemic status given to the family has also protected abusers, not just here in Ireland but in many countries. Some of the girls who ended up in the mother-and-child homes had been abused and made pregnant by their own fathers, but were the fathers arrested or even warned? No.

It was almost certainly a reaction against the way in which various cultural forces combined in the past to protect abusers that led the State to unjustifiably take away those two children from their Roma families.

The State didn't want to be accused of being too slow to act. But what the case shows is that cultural forces can change so drastically and in such dramatic reaction against the past that an old problem is replaced with its exact opposite problem. So today they can be too quick to act. In fact, what the Roma case shows is that even without the children's rights amendment of November 2012 (still not part of the Constitution because of a legal challenge), the State has huge powers of intervention in families in any case.

The impression given before the referendum was that the State lacked the necessary powers to remove children from their families except in the gravest emergencies.

But if the State can remove children from their innocent parents because they don't look like them and this is considered reason enough to suspect that they "abducted" them, then the State has plenty of power.

In Britain there are numerous examples of children being taken from their families by the state who should not have been taken, and for that matter, children who should have been taken but were not.

In Scotland, the interventionist approach is now so strong that the Scottish government is set to appoint a state officer called 'a named person' to every child in Scotland from birth until 18.

This 'named person' will have the power to oversee various aspects of the child's life and act as a sort of third parent.

If the family was overly protected from outside intervention in the past this is really taking it to the other extreme. Scotland might as well nationalise children while it's at it.

Writing in this paper the other day about the Roma cases, Colette Brown said we now need to know how many children have been removed from their homes by the State and under what circumstances.

That is, we need to know whether the State is using its power in a proportionate and responsible manner. Perhaps there are lots of Roma-style cases where the gardai have removed children from their families who shouldn't have been removed.

Unjustly removing children from their parents can be a form of emotional child abuse in itself with the State as the perpetrator this time.

We have to get the balance right here. In the past, society worked in all kinds of ways, often unwittingly, to protect abusers. Today the system might well be victimising more innocent parents and their children more than we know. We need to know.

David Quinn

Irish Independent

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