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Shifting blame for horrific child abuse

David Quinn

A child abuse case of horrific proportions has plunged Britain into one of its periodic bouts of soul-searching this week.

The case involves an infant known simply as 'Baby P'. He died in August last year, aged just 17 months, following endless physical abuse by his mother's boyfriend -- a collector of Nazi memorabilia -- and, apparently, her lodger as well.

In Ireland, we have had, and still have, our fair share of child abuse cases. Obviously, there has been abuse of children by clerics. But there has also been abuse of children by their own families.

The most famous examples of the latter are the Kelly Fitzgerald case and the Kilkenny incest case. Kelly Fitzgerald died in 1993, aged 12, following years of neglect and abuse by her parents. The girl in the Kilkenny incest case was continually assaulted and raped by her father between 1976 and 1991.

Both of those cases caused our own bouts of soul-searching. The finger of blame was obviously pointed at the parents. But it was also pointed at social services for failing the girls. Finally, it was pointed at Irish society itself, and, more precisely, at the sort of 'traditional values' that apparently discouraged anyone, including the local community, from intervening to save the girls from harm.

The Kilkenny incest case resulted in a landmark report. In that report, Judge Catherine McGuinness famously blamed the case, in part at least, on the Irish Constitution.

She declared that "the very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution may consciously, or unconsciously, be interpreted as giving a higher value to the rights of parents than to the rights of children". She went on to recommend the amendment of the Constitution to include "a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children".

Ever since, those pressing for such an amendment have used the McGuinness line. For example, in April 2005, the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, said that the Kilkenny incest case highlighted the need to change the Constitution.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it doesn't even begin to make sense.

The Constitution already allows for intervention where a child is being abused or neglected. The law, therefore, allowed social services to intervene in both the Kelly Fitzgerald case and the Kilkenny incest case. If they failed to do so adequately, then that was their fault and not the Constitution's.

A fall-back position is, of course, that it wasn't so much the Constitution that was to blame, but a set of conservative social attitudes that makes neighbours and professionals reluctant to interfere in family life. This is what Judge McGuinness meant by people 'unconsciously' deferring to the fact that the Constitution seems to prefer parents over children.

But this doesn't work either. For starters, and as Justice Adrian Hardiman pointed out in the 'Baby Ann' case, the Constitution doesn't prefer parents over children, it prefers them over some third parties such as the Church or the State.

But even more to the point, if traditional social attitudes were to blame for the Fitzgerald and Kilkenny cases, then what explains Baby P and other British abuse cases?

The main culprit in the death of this child was his mother's boyfriend. From November 2006 through to Baby P's death in August 2007, he continually abused the child.

Baby P was seen 22 times by social services, 14 times by hospital staff, 13 times by doctors and four times in clinics. Despite this, he was never taken permanently into care. If he had been, he would still be alive.

Why not? Was it because Britain has a constitution which 'prefers parents over children'? No, because Britain doesn't have a written constitution, much less a conservative one.

Was it conservative social attitudes then? No, because much of Britain is shot through with a political correctness that is at war with traditional values. This is especially so in the case of state services. These services have plenty of power of intervention. So, what was to blame then?

Maybe it was simple bureaucratic incompetence combined with a reluctance to be seen to be 'victimising' poor people.

British social commentators, like Melanie Philips, know exactly where to point the blame and they point it in completely the opposite direction than people such as Emily Logan or Judge McGuinness. They point it at the decline of traditional values rather than at their alleged strength.

They point out, correctly, that a vast underclass has been created in Britain by poverty, and by the decline of marriage and traditional morality and that this places ever more children at risk of abuse because the safest place for a child to be, proportionately speaking, is in the married family.

Baby P, and other cases like it, show that abuse happens in all societies. It also shows that attempts to blame Irish abuse cases on traditional morality and the Constitution are blinkered, ideologically self-serving and very wide of the mark.