Who’s responsibility is child protection? An analysis of the @mwilliamsthomas Twitterstorm

[Trigger warning: sexual assault/exploitation]

Another day, another Twitter pile-on. I love Twitter, but it has its drawbacks. Not least of these is the 140 character limit, which makes it hard to express nuances and complexities. When those complexities have to be squeezed into a tiny little box, misunderstandings happen, and those misunderstandings turn into flaming great rows, particularly on an emotive topic.

This morning the criminologist and TV presenter Mark Williams-Thomas tweeted

The story about the 12yr girl being raped in London in early hours of Sunday morning is horrific. But what was she doing out at that time?

The story he’s referring to is this one, and it does indeed look horrific. A 12 year old girl on the streets of Leyton after midnight, picked up by three older teenagers, taken to a secluded spot and gang-raped. Truly awful.

Williams-Thomas was instantly bombarded with angry tweets. I won’t list any @usernames here, but much of it was from a certain segment of Twitter that tend to have their outrage on a hair-trigger.

Disappointing victim blaming from @mwilliamsthomas…Maybe she was homeless, in care, missing?!

 

Whatever time, 12 yr old girl is out, for whatever reason, rape inexcusable. To say otherwise suggests victim culpability?

 

doesn’t really matter what she was doing out at that time – should be free to walk anytime w/o fear of attack

 

does it not matter at this stage? Questions like that deserve to be raised after any prosecution. Blinkered.

 

Infuriating that @mwilliamsthomas didn’t ask why men think its ok to rape girls & women, and instead blamed the 12yo victim.

The trouble with hair-trigger outrage though, is that sometimes the wrong targets accidentally wind up getting blasted with both barrels. Mark Williams-Thomas has an impressive CV. He’s a former police officer and child protection expert. He’s also the guy who exposed Jimmy Saville, and has presented numerous TV shows about child abuse and protection. If he’s a rape apologist and victim-blamer, the ghost of Jimmy Saville must be feeling rather let down.

Williams-Thomas quickly clarified his previous tweet.

Child was 12yr & therefore an adult had responsibility as to why she was out past midnight. My Q does not in anyway put any blame on child

This didn’t do anything to stop the piling-on.

Children are probably more at risk in their homes, you realise?

 

So you’re blaming her parents/guardians rather than the rapists. Well that’s fine then.

 

Obviously rapes only happen at night, when women/girls shouldn’t be out. Right? Oh wait…

 

but it shifts the blame AWAY from the offender.

And so it went on. 

When these sorts of arguments flame up on Twitter, sometimes its helpful to step away from the 140 character limit to a blog post, where such matters should be thought about more carefully.

So, whose responsibility is it when a child wandering the streets late at night is sexually assaulted by three individuals? And whose responsibility is it to protect children from such assaults?

To start with, and I hope this goes without saying, the first to blame and the worst to blame are the three alleged perpetrators. They have committed an awful crime and need to be subjected to the full force of the law. 

Despite the Twitter outrage, there is a legitimate question of why the child was left unprotected to wander the streets at night. The legal concept of parental responsibility makes it clear

If you have parental responsibility, your most important roles are to:

  • provide a home for the child

  • protect and maintain the child

Of course that’s assuming the child was at the parental home during the hours before the attack. It’s also possible that she could have been with relatives, or could have been a looked-after child. Whatever her circumstances, somebody had a duty of care to this poor girl, and for some reason, that duty of care has failed catastrophically.

There may be a relatively innocent explanation for this. The parents may have thought a door was locked…it wasn’t…the girl slipped out unnoticed. That’s possible. Another explanation is that she was simply being neglected. and while we don’t know the circumstances right now, it’s a question that needs to be asked.

I tried to remonstrate this point on Twitter, and got some angry replies.

A child is raped by two teenage boys, and the immediate reaction is to question the parenting of the victim.

 

suggesting that implies one caused the other. They’re separate issues.

Are neglect and sexual assault separate issues? Take a look at this list of children most vulnerable to street grooming by those well-known victim-blamers, the NSPCC. Unsurprisingly, it’s a list of the already-vulnerable. Missing or runaway children, looked-after children, kids with mental health conditions or drug problems, or who live in poverty or a marginalised community. The Rochdale trafficking case is a prime example of this, where kids from dysfunctional backgrounds were preyed on by the gang.

As a CAMHS nurse who has worked on child protection cases, this chimes neatly with my clinical experience. Sexual predators will home in on those children and young people who already have a pre-existing vulnerability. The looked-after child who keeps absconding from foster care…the boy who’s developing a drug habit and needs money…the lonely girl with low self-esteem and a row of self-harm scars on her arm…

…or the 12 year old girl who, for some reason yet unknown, has been left wandering the streets late at night.

So, when there’s a concern that a child may or may not be adequately cared for, who’s business is it? The police? Social services?

The answer to that question is very clear both in law and in policy. Child protection is everybody’s business. Schools, hospitals, police, CAMHS, churches, Scouts and Guides, military cadet forces….everybody who works with children has a responsibility to look out for signs of abuse or neglect, to ask questions and, if necessary, to make a child protection referral to social services.

Does a 12 year wandering the street after midnight sound like grounds to trigger a child protection referral? I suspect I’d be in a lot of trouble at work if I said it doesn’t.

And yes, I know all that “everybody’s business” rhetoric may sound like a Big Brother, nosey-parker Panopticon state. But the brutal truth is that if we don’t all look out for vulnerable children, then there’s other, far nastier people who will.

So, to summarise:

  • Parents and carers have a responsibility to protect their children.
  • Everybody who works with children has a responsibility to be vigilant for abuse or neglect, and to report it where necessary.
  • Twelve year old girls have a responsibility to…well, they don’t have a responsibility to anyone. They’re twelve. Adults have a responsibility to them

 

Outside of certain heated Twitter arguments, I don’t think this a particularly controversial statement.