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Moral Panics and Social Work: towards a sceptical view of UK child protection

February 8, 2013

Children and families social work has been prone to periodic involvement in scares and moral panics, e.g. the Munchausen by proxy syndrome of the 1970s, glue-sniffing in the 1980s, satanic abuse in the 1990s and more recently, childhood obesity. This opinion piece focuses on a 21st century child protection anxiety, the Internet and child sexual abuse,

Moral Panics

In Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen examined incidents of widespread social alarm from the 1950s and 1960s in relation to a variety of nation-wide issues that temporarily gripped the public imagination.  Cohen argued that issues came about and were amplified by media attention with the co-operation of what he termed ‘moral guardians of society’. In his example of the Mods and Rockers, Cohen argued that a combination of moral outrage and substantial press coverage lead to widespread alarm and panic during which politicians became involved, the behaviour of culprits (‘folk devils’) became a matter for national concern and police and magistrates ‘got tough’.

Cohen also drew attention to those he described as ‘moral entrepreneurs’, such as charities, rights groups, local councillors, religious leaders that stoked panic.  In his analysis of the UK satanic abuse controversy of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jenkins employs the phrase ‘claims-makers’ for those who involve themselves in the kind of moralizing projects, campaigns and crusades that contribute to the genesis of a moral panic.  Social Work, but especially child protection, has been associated with claims-makers from its inception in the 19th century when the NSPCC took its exaggerations of depravity and abuse to the media to today with… more accounts of depravity and abuse, mostly concerned with the dangers of the Internet.

Children, Safety and the Internet

The fertile ground of Internet concerns is where the most recent and high-profile agency for the protection of children has emerged. Describing itself as the UK’s national centre for child protection, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre was established in 2006 by the UK Government at the instigation of leading children’s charities including NSPCC.  Its 2009-10 Annual Review describes the CEOP as representing ‘a step-change in law enforcement: never before had police officers, child protection specialists, educators, representatives from industry, charity and government been brought together under one roof with the single aim of protecting children’. The CEOP’s partners include many leading child protection agencies such as Barnardo’s and the NSPCC.   The CEOP has entered the field against the on-line threat to the safety of children and young people.  An information leaflet explaining the work of CEOP is hard-hitting: ‘Child sexual abuse is one of the most horrific crimes, if not the worst. It attacks the most vulnerable people in our society, affects victims for life and rips away significant chunks from their most formative years’.  The battle lines are drawn: the threat of child sexual abuse is ‘horrendous’ and ‘we ignore this threat at our peril’. The leaflet goes on to describe the CEOP as part of ‘an international alliance of law enforcement agencies working together to fight paedophiles online’ (Information Leaflet, undated).  CEOP press releases continue the theme of struggle (‘The battle is far from over’).  Battle, horror, peril and fight. This is the language of a crusade.  Do the numbers at risk justify this?

When the CEOP announces tells us that they have ‘safeguarded’ 414 children from sexual abuse we welcome this but need to ask how is the count of ‘414 safeguarded children’ made?  Furthermore, what is meant by ‘safeguarded and protected’?  From whom were these children protected?  From themselves?  From family members?  From adult paedophiles? From other under-18s?  The proportion of threats to the welfare of these children that were Internet-based as distinct from other risk sources is also unclear.  In relation to arrests of ‘513 suspects’, again it is not clear for what crime these people have been arrested. We are not told how many were subsequently charged and if so with what crime. Nor are there details of any subsequent proceedings and the numbers found innocent or guilty.  Unless claims of the degree of threat posed to children and young people by the Internet can be questioned we are unable to judge the proportions of the threat – and the time and money spent on such activity.

Time will tell whether the CEOP’s claims are disproportionate to the purported threat, in the words of Goode and Ben Yehuda such claims further a panic about the ‘…sense that a more sizable number of individuals are engaged in the behaviour in question than actually are’.

Social Work, Child Protection and Moralism

The history of child protection panics suggests a lengthy continuity of a deep normalising belief in social work of a right way to behave and a wrong way – what will be tolerated and what will not.

A move can be charted from 19th century anxiety and moral panics over cruelty and neglect by feckless parents to a more focussed but widespread anxiety today that more often than not is about child endangerment and is one that bubbles below the surface and emerges every so often with deleterious effects for parents and children (as in the events in 1987 in Cleveland and three years later in Orkney).  An underlying ideology imbued with what seems to be quasi-religiosity derived from social work’s roots in moralism and rescue, especially around saving children from evil, may also be detected.  The 21st century moral code no longer stresses ‘goodness’ or Godliness. What has now displaced the concerns of the early founders of social work is a language of safety, risk and protection, according to which all manner of parental activity can be classified as high, medium or low risk. However, whilst the language may have altered we find a recurrence of anxieties and fears regarding standards of parenting and ‘appropriateness’ of behaviour of children and young people, across range of parental commission (childhood obesity) or omission (failure to supervise Internet use).

Child Protection and the Battle for Resources

In his sceptical account of ‘the child abuse movement’ in the USA, Hacking discusses the advent of the concept of child abuse and draws attention to a burgeoning category which includes ‘some things that were not even counted as especially bad three decades ago’ noting that ‘no one had any glimmering, in 1960, of what was going to count as child abuse in 1990’. In a passage regarding the activities of what I would describe as claims-makers, he points to the latter’s success in inculcating a sense of national emergency: ‘…the feeling of emergency was there. But it was exuberant. New methods, new agencies, new laws, new education of children, new information for parents, new therapies…’.   Hacking queries the apparent doubling of child abuse cases and then the earnestness (and relish) of both the claims-makers and social workers in the face of such pressures: ‘If only we had more people, more time!’.

Today this call for more resources is echoed by the CEOP whose Chief Executive ‘admitted there was now a need for the government to wake up to the scale of the problem. Gamble asked: ‘Do I need more people? Yes, of course I do.’’.

The ability to capture the attention of both the Government and the public in the scramble for resources is now a central occupation as witnessed by the fund-raising campaigns of the large UK child protection charities and agencies such as CEOP.  Charities’ survival depends on winning recognition and consequent income from their fundraising campaigns. Children’s charities compete with each other for donations from both the general public and from business world.  CEOP needs a bigger budget to deal with what it (and every other claims-makers before it) describes as ‘the tip of the iceberg. Each agency in this field has to demonstrate their unique worth in saving children from an ever increasing range of perils.  One consequence of the competition for child protection resources is the creation of anxieties and alarmism, the seed bed for moral panics.

Gary Clapton, 8th February 2013

(abbreviated version of Moral Panics and Social Work: towards a sceptical view of UK child protection, Clapton, G., Cree, V. and Smith, M. (2012) published online by Critical Social Policy


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