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.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Who’s responsibility is child protection? An analysis of the @mwilliamsthomas Twitterstorm

  1. Strange how the same hair-trigger critics are only too quick to blame police or other authorities if someone with whom they have had some contact (however trivial) comes to serious harm thus totally diverting attention from the culpability of the actual offenders! #Hypocrisy

  2. We are mentioned in the above post, and so it would be useful for you to read this:

    http://everydayvictimblaming.com/submissions/the-silencer-an-open-letter-to-those-quick-to-defend-slow-to-reflect/

    It explains our tweets in detail & we are happy to discuss this further, should you wish to.

    Good people make mistakes. We all victim blame – even us, who are survivors & have CP training & experience.

    It is a brave person who admits that their comment could have been misunderstood – especially if you have 15k+ followers.

    As a side issue – good people doing good work are not perfect, we know this. We ourselves are not, but if we make a mistake & survivors repeatedly tell us so – we should listen, and hear them.

    • I can see your point about how his original tweet could have come across, particularly to people with lived experience of sexual assault.

      There’s also the point (which I hope I’ve addressed in the above post) that just because the girl was in the street late at night unsupervised doesn’t automatically mean she was being neglected. I’ve no doubt that there’ll be some pretty searching questions from police and social services as to how she came to be there, but at the same time it’s important to recognise that children can and do slip out unnoticed even with the best parents.

      I think part of the problem here is the medium rather than the people. However, it may have come across, I don’t think Williams-Thomas intended to sound victim-blaming. The trouble is that when a statement has to be crammed into 140 characters then it becomes simplified and nuances are lost. Those replying also have to cram their responses into a tweet, and as a result positions get quickly entrenched on both sides. That’s why I think when these arguments arise it’s a good idea to step away from Twitter and move to a blog.

  3. You make some reasonable points, but you also make some unnecessary side-swipes that deflect from the points you are making: namely comments about people whose outrage is on a hair-trigger. Quite unnecessary really, as the points you have made well, dont need to be made from such an aggressive position.

    Is MWT a rape apologist? No. I don’t see that as being the case. Was what he said a contributing factor to, or a reflection of victim blaming? Yes, there is a good argument to say that is the case. Regardless of motivation in saying something, it is entirely possible for one’s words to have unintended consequences. You don’t have to be a racist to have racist views or to say something that may be racist in some way. Likewise, you don’t have to be a rape apologist to say something that comes across as anti-victim or victim-blaming. In those circumstances, it is usually better to listen to the “outrage” of which you speak and consider the sentiments therein. Those of us who acknowledge we are fallible are happy to apologise and learn from it, which is usually far more productive than being defensive and feeding the ‘storm.

    I also wish people would stop repeating the myth that MWT is a child protection EXPERT. He is an ex-police officer and a criminology student. He has presented a number of television programs about child abuse, including fronting the work of the BBC newsnight journalist which became the Savile expose. Whilst that was an important piece of work, it was, in the main, pulled together by someone else and he was fortuitously asked to front it due to the BBC’s flawed decision to pull the plug. That does not make him an expert and repeating this idea that he is, fuels the misconception that he can do no wrong.

    He can. He does.

    • What on earth is this about? A 12 year old child was wandering about unsupervised at a late hour. Most parents would shudder at the thought and now there is a fucking row over something that should be a basic of parenting. I don’t care if matey boy isn’t a child care expert. He’s right.

  4. The points above by Emma are well made. As someone who tweeted criticism of MWT’s tweet, one tweet of which you quoted, I struggle to see how you characterise my tweet as a hair trigger angry response. Your language ‘bombard with angry tweets’ etc is close to that which you seek to criticise.

    It is legitimate to say that the consequence of a tweet about a 12 year old who has been raped is to suggest she was somehow complicit, without damning the person who tweeted the original tweet. In fact there were some dreadful character assassination tweets about MWT you could but did not include. In taking indiv tweets out of the context of a series of tweets you have also laid yourself open to criticism of bending the facts to fit your thesis. I do think MWT dug a bit of a hole for himself in his tweets after the original one which prolonged “the storm” but no doubt he felt he had said nothing for which he needed to apologies.

    I have reflected, and will continue to reflect on your blog, I trust you will do the same re these comments. You may also wish to consider whether you should respond to tweeted comments on your blogs directly on Twitter, particularly where you are criticising people who then are tweeting their comments.

  5. Pingback: Child Protection – who is responsible? | Stay Safe

  6. Great post!

    I think that when we are analysing how we can prevent incidences of sexual assault happening we really do need to look at the human and physical environments of the attack and those both preceding and following on from it if we are to learn anything. So the question of why a girl of that age was out at that time is perfectly legitimate in order to look at future safeguarding. If people didn’t ask questions like that, late night student buses etc. would never have materialised.

    As a human being, a mental health practitioner who has worked with individuals with a history of suffering and/or perpetrating sexual abuse, and a Child Protection Officer for a sports organisation, I find it sad that people feel the need to pile-on on Twitter, or anywhere else for that matter, when issues such as this are being discussed. Because if these people succeed in silencing others, perhaps we can never constructively find ways to end child abuse.

  7. Hi, I am a student studying an Honours Degree in Social Work and I find your post very interesting although it is a terrible ordeal for anyone to go through.
    I understand how your tweet first came across although I think it was taken the wrong way as you were just highlighting an obvious reaction to the situation described.
    I agree with the comment that child protection is everyone’s responsibility such as the people of the community, friends and family and not just the parents as are the first who are always blamed they cannot keep their child behind closed doors forever. You cannot just assume this is a case of neglect on behalf of the parents also as there are many ways to get around your parents judgement of situations such as saying you are staying at a friends when you are not. However on the other hand you must look into the factors that built up to this event taking place. On the night in question when the three boys committed this attack if it had not have been this child it would have been someone else which is a terrible way to think but it is the truth. Unfortunately it happened to her and now she has to live with this for the rest of her life, hopefully she gets the correct support for going through this truly horrific ordeal.

  8. Hi, I am a student studying an Honours Degree in Social Work and I find your post very interesting although it is a terrible ordeal for anyone to go through. I understand how your tweet first came across although I think it was taken the wrong way as you were just highlighting an obvious reaction to the situation described. I agree with the comment that child protection is everyone’s responsibility such as the people of the community, friends and family and not just the parents as are the first who are always blamed they cannot keep their child behind closed doors forever. You cannot just assume this is a case of neglect on behalf of the parents also as there are many ways to get around your parents judgment of situations such as saying you are staying at a friend’s when you are not.
    However on the other hand you must look into the factors that built up to this event taking place. On the night in question when the three boys committed this attack if it had not been this child it would have been someone else as they were the people making the choices. Unfortunately this happened to this innocent child and now she has to live with this for the rest of her life, hopefully she gets the correct support for going through this truly horrific ordeal.

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