Beyond belief;Books;Features amp; Arts

19th November 1999 at 00:00
STOLEN VOICES: an exposure of the campaign to discredit childhood testimony. By Beatrix Campbell and Judith Jones. The Women's Press pound;9.99. Child abuse is notoriously difficult to prove. But many adults make it harder by assuming the victims are lying. Nicholas Tucker examines a powerful indictment of a society that betrays its young.

Suspected adult sexual abuse of children - its frequency, seriousness and ubiquity - is one of the most potentially explosive problems facing British society. Because it is so difficult to prove, estimates of its occurrence vary wildly from one authority to another. Children themselves make poor witnesses in court, often lacking the necessary vocabulary and staying power to make charges stick. Expert commentators range from those who, for whatever reasons, consistently support accused adults, to those who almost always take the word of the child or the responsible adult who first gets to hear certain unsettling remarks or stories.

In Stolen Voices, Beatrix Campbell and Judith Jones are in no doubt that in all the notorious trials involving child sexual abuse during the past 30 years, it is the children who were telling the truth and the adults, acquitted or not, who were guilty. This conviction is based on detailed evidence garnered from the cases themselves. Such evidence often failed to make it to the courts or to the accounts written up at the time or afterwards by visiting journalists. Consequently, this is a book that demands to be read and responded to, particularly by those who like to bask in the comfort of glib generalisations about over-suggestible therapists or social workers, and the general unreliability of any memory from childhood, whether subsequently "recovered" or not.

The authors' blanket condemnation of adult-child sexual contact is, or should be, uncontroversial, given that both parties are at different developmental stages and have different needs. Mixing the two nearly always brings shame, guilt and confusion to the child whatever the satisfactions to the adult.

An exception, however, could be made for some of the different forms of sensual contact - far removed from penetrative sex - that different cultures have always allowed, particularly between mothers and infants as a way of soothing a child. There are always going to be other grey areas in families and societies concerning bodily contact, where some erotic feeling between parent and child is both permitted and enjoyed. But such disputed areas are not really the subject of this book, bar a rather prim reference to "supposedly harmless fondling" on page 209.

Where the authors are less convincing is in their unbridled scorn and contempt for those who take a different line to their own. Anger is perfectly appropriate when defenceless and wronged children are seen to have been let down in order not to rock society's boat.

Yet even the possibility that there might have been some false accusations made by children in the past, egged on as often as not by other adults with their own agendas, is never considered here. Instead, certain police forces, social services and academics come in for a lot of flak - sometimes deserved, but sometimes less so. The police have to get convictions, and it is understandable that they should dislike taking on cases where finding adequate proof is so difficult. Social services, frequently faced by a hostile and disbelieving media, also have to tread ultra-carefully.

In cases where there may indeed be a culture of widespread child sexual abuse, there is the attendant problem of where to place children, should they be taken away from their homes. Placing the children in council care may end one problem but start others; statistics about the transition from care to successful adulthood are not encouraging.

Once it was possible to overlook such issues by ignoring the incidence of sexual abuse altogether. This is no longer an option, but because society has yet to come up with any viable ways of treating the problem while protecting the children concerned, there is always going to be a strong bias towards inaction. However, this is often coupled with an inexcusable refusal to listen to these children. Pioneering organisations such as Childline offer a huge improvement here, but there is still a long way to go. One possible step would be to take investigation of sexual abuse in the family out of the criminal system and hand it over to the children's services, which is the approach in some European countries.

Approaching fraught family situations from a primarily non-forensic position would allow more flexibility and greater contact with children at a time when they desperately need understanding and sympathy. But this approach would deprive the public and the media of its deeply entrenched thirst for vengeance, either against convicted adult perpetrators or else against those who are thought to be spreading false messages.

There is a lot of growing up to be done in the whole of society before abused children get a better deal. Stolen Voices, despite its fiercely black-and-white approach, provides an important learning opportunity in that direction which should not be squandered.

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