I was recently engaged to provide expert witness testimony in a case involving historic child abuse. The incidents were said to have taken place in the late eighties and early nineties. The case rested on whether an organisation had acted in a reasonable way when they had been given information indicating that one of their members had been accused of abusing a child. In order to judge whether they had done so or not, you needed to examine and consider what the expected standard of care would have been at that time. In short you needed to establish what level of knowledge people would have had about sexual abuse and the behaviour of sex offenders at that time.

The case was a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. The temptation to assess the reported events by applying our current level of knowledge to them, was a constant hazard. The difference that exists between where we were then and where we are now is immense. On reflection, it is hard to appreciate that we knew so little and our services reflected this.

The history of the development of child safeguarding in the United Kingdom should be reflected and commented on more often. The existence of legislation that offers effective protection to vulnerable children in society is quite recent. In fact, we had legislation in place that offered protection to animals before we felt that children should also be protected. What does this say about the value that we placed upon them! I believe that the earliest cases of attempted prosecutions for child cruelty in the United Kingdom were argued in court on the basis that children should have at least the same amount of protection as a cow or a sheep. We are not talking about the middle ages here but the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thankfully, we have moved on a great deal from then. However, it does raise the questions as to how much have we changed and when did it happen. The temptation is to compress the progress that society has made and assume that it all happened very quickly. The evidence would suggest otherwise. For example, it is still not legally required in England and Wales to report child abuse if you are aware that it has taken place. However, it would be an offence not to report the same incident in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I have had the privilege of being involved in this work for a very long period of time. I began my career in child safeguarding in 1973 so I have had the opportunity to witness change in practice over four decades. I can recall when child sexual abuse was added as a separate category for registration on the child protection register. Up until that point, child sexual abuse was not recognised as something that warranted separate categorisation as it was thought to occur so infrequently. It was also understood as being primarily behaviour occurring within the family rather than outside.

Clearly, the reality would have been quite different but our knowledge and understanding of it led us to completely misrepresent it. We simply did not know what was going on. This raises the question as to whether this lag between what we believe are the experiences of children and what is actually happening to them, still exists today. Are we still misunderstanding what is happening to them and are abusers still well ahead of where those who work in the field of safeguarding children are?

Occasionally, events occur that have a major impact on societies’ awareness of the abuse that young people are subject to. Looking back, the impact of events such as the broadcasting of the Childwatch programme in the mid-eighties or the crisis in Cleveland where a large number of children were taken into care resulting in a public inquiry, are good examples of this happening. These events had a major impact and grabbed the attention of society in the United Kingdom. Undoubtedly, they forced change. In the same way, the deaths of vulnerable children such as “Baby P” and many others also contribute to this process.

As someone who has spent their entire professional life working in this field, it is interesting to note that when you look back the progress of change has not been constant but appeared to follow a “stop and start” path.  Crisis brings forward reaction which translates into change as it impacts on the political system. What is much harder to recognise is change that takes place as a result of a gradual realisation or shift in the values that we hold as a society. In other words, change is not value driven but crisis led.

Therefore, has anything really changed from those early days in the field of safeguarding children when we appeared to be confused as a society as to the relative value of a child or a cow? Are we simply reacting to pressure generated by a crisis or have we accepted the principle that vulnerable children have a right to be protected and nurtured regardless of the cost?

Let me cite an example to illustrate my point. There is interest in the possibility of introducing the mandatory reporting of child abuse in the United Kingdom. Those who oppose this development often argue that the resources required to respond to the initiative would break the child protection services. They would be swamped. It is believed that they would not have the ability to meet the demand.

For me, this is not an argument against the introduction of mandatory reporting. On the contrary, it is an argument to re-examine the resourcing of the child protection services that operate in the United Kingdom. If the introduction of mandatory reporting is based on a principle, than that should not be defeated by practicalities. In the same way that we have decided as a society to provide health care free at point of need to all, then adopting mandatory reporting would appear to me to be a natural consequence of having a statutory child protection service that is set up as being reactive in nature. It reacts to information that is shared with it. If it is not given the information then its usefulness is greatly reduced.

Principles before practicalities. Can we say that as a society we have adopted a value driven approach to child safeguarding? Have we really changed that much?