Time for an end to 'children at risk' headlines

John Freeman
Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Have I Got News for You has a game based on guessing missing words in headlines. Perusing the papers recently, I noticed a headline: "X is putting children at risk, Xs say". Over the next few days, I read several other articles which this headline would have suited. Before I fill in the gaps, spend a few seconds thinking of a few words that might fit - it won't be hard.

The articles I read were "Shortage of mental health care… GPs warn"; "Not setting screen time for parents… Education Secretary says"; and, on the same day, "Mothers distracted by Facebook… Police say"; "Toxic air… Chief Medical Officer warns"; "Discarded button batteries… Child Accident Prevention Trust says"; and finally, "Poverty and hunger at Christmas time… charities say". There have been more since!

I was forcibly struck by the fact that none of this is even vaguely new. We understand the systemic issues that put children at risk of failing to thrive. These are mostly linked closely to poverty - poor housing and nutrition for example - but exacerbated by lack of access to support services. It's worth remembering that Eton School has its own professional mental health team led by a consultant adolescent psychiatrist. I can't imagine that the waiting list for support is as long as it is in most child and adolescent mental health services.

The problem is that poverty is multi-dimensional and expensive to ameliorate. In the decade before the financial crash, real progress was made that has since been sharply reversed - increasing poverty and inequality are due in large part to political decisions, not just economic necessity. The ending of Sure Start alongside the hollowing-out of public services while well-off people in the UK have low tax rates is, indeed, "putting children at risk".

There are some actions that government can take cheaply and easily - I hope that, finally, folic acid supplements in bread will be approved in the spring, enabling many hundreds of children every year to develop without developing completely avoidable spina bifida and related defects.

Many specific risks that children face are not linked to poverty but a simple lack of understanding or awareness. We are learning about these all the time, and charities and professional groups publicise them well. Since 1988, cot death has been reduced by a factor of more than six (about 1,600 down to 250) through the educational work of The Lullaby Trust and the NHS. I'm pleased that the government has picked up the challenge of improving health care around childbirth - it's appalling that, today, a mother in the UK is three times as likely to die in childbirth as in Poland.

This year we ought to do all we can to make the headline "X is putting children at risk, says X" redundant, when it isn't news to any of us - parents, teachers, social workers and politicians!

  • John Freeman is a children's services consultant and former director of children's services

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