Thinking about vulnerability and risk

Sometimes you pull on the littlest of threads and the biggest of issues appear at the other end.

Today I have been training in quite a remote location in the Welsh borders. It is the first time in quite some time that I’ve been in a location with no mobile signal. And no mobile signal meant no satnav to find my location last night, and no means to let my husband know I had arrived. I soon found there was no working phone box, and given the late hour there was nobody around to ask directions. And all of a sudden I realised that I was lost, alone and that nobody knew where I was! For those few minutes before I found the hotel, I realised how much I have grown to rely on technology to feel safe and oriented in my day-to-day life. And then I wondered if I felt less fearless before those technologies were so ubiquitous, or whether it is just the absence of a crutch I have grown to rely on that made me feel more vulnerable. After all, what was the real risk?

I started to think about about how we are trained to over emphasise certain sorts of risk (like stranger-danger, or the risk of immigrants on unemployment rates), and to under-recognise others (like the risks to children from exposure to domestic violence, or the risks that so many families face from poverty and discrimination). It seems that the media trains us to be most afraid of the things we have least control over. A cynic might think they want us to have an external locus of control and a certain degree about learnt helplessness when it comes to social issues. Whatever the motivation, the result is that many people go about their lives with little awareness of the risks that I see as the most important in society today – how vulnerable many children and adults are to abuse and exploitation, how maltreatment is normative in certain families and communities, and how interpersonal violence, trauma and abuse can change the path of people’s lives.

One example of risk and vulnerability that has been prominent in the media recently is how the press has turned once again to discrediting victims of abuse who speak up. This has taken several strands. First the media narrative has changed from “survivors of child abuse” to “alleged survivors of child abuse”, sowing the seed of doubt about every person who makes a disclosure. Second politicians are telling their colleagues to withdraw allegations due to loyalty to their party, and trying to shame the brave few who spoke up and asked for multiple disclosures and allegations to be investigated into apologising for maligning a powerful public figure. And third we are repeatedly hearing that those with allegations against them which are dropped by the police or CPS have been “proven innocent” or that victims have “lied” or “fabricated” rather than the more accurate truth of the matter, in which there is insufficient evidence to have a high enough chance of successful prosecution to merit public funds to proceed. The climate of being willing to look into abuse allegations against the rich and powerful, which gained such momentum from the public disgust about how Jimmy Savile got away with such extensive crimes for so long, has turned once again into a climate in which victims feel that the authorities are biased towards powerful and they are not going to be believed. This blog is an eloquent example of that.

Whilst I firmly believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty, and the need for exceptional reasons to name someone against whom allegations have been made before the case has sufficient evidence to come to trial, we are dealing with a system far more weighted towards false negatives than false positives. Let us not forget that as many as 1 in 5 children are sexually abused, and yet only 15% are able to disclose in a way that leads to a police investigation. That’s the scandal here, not the impact on the reputation of a dead politician.

We need to remember that the victims of abuse are human beings like us who have been failed by society. If all politicians see is demographics and price tags, or characters and plots in which the goody is the one who becomes rich and powerful, then they don’t treat people like people. Recognising human beings and their ability to suffer is necessary to form policy, to offer justice and to be objective in investigations. In fact, that recognition of our common humanity and how people are shaped by their experiences makes you more able to consider that the perpetrators who are too often written off as incurable and evil are mostly people who have been victims themselves and never had the positive learning experiences children need to develop healthily in their own lives.

I think tackling child maltreatment is the primary social problem in the world today. To address this problem we need a multifaceted approach. I believe that if we can prevent child abuse and help people to have secure attachment relationships they will learn to be more resilient, empathic and socially skilled. In time this will have immeasurable positive impact on society. It will reduce crime, addiction, conflict, mental health problems, and even reduce the incidence and severity of many major physical health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And interventions to help reduce maltreatment, improve attachment relationships and support children to make an optimal recovery from abuse or poor care are highly cost effective. Every pound spent in addressing childhood adversity through evidence-based interventions is repaid tenfold to the state in savings before adulthood (for example, we know that mental health interventions in childhood can save £83 more per pound spent where issues are prevented or treated in childhood rather than remaining into adulthood). But it doesn’t stop there. These changes continue to make ripples that save costs in health, social care, criminal justice, employment, benefit, and tax spheres for the rest of the person’s lifetime, and then for their partners, children and future generations.

We just need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and imagining risks where they don’t exist, and start trying to solve the systemic problems that make them vulnerable in the first place.

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