Sunday, April 04, 2010

Hidden in the media blitz

In all the justified fury against Roman Catholic priests who have disgraced themselves and wounded others and the unjustified howling at the Pope for supposedly condoning priestly child abuse (which he doesn't), you may be forgiven for having missed this week the following stories about the abuse of children which were also posted in the past week.

"A council is to pay nearly £1m to victims of a child abuse scandal at one of its residential homes in the 1970s.

Dumfries and Galloway Council agreed last year to make £20,000 payments to people identified as having suffered abuse at the hands of Peter Harley.

He was in charge of Merkland Children's Home in Moffat between 1977 and 1982.

The council had prepared to make payments to 20 known victims - one of whom has since died - but a further 28 people have now come forward.

Peter Harley inflicted physical and sexual abuse on boys aged from six to 16 when he ran Merkland. He was jailed for 15 years in 1996 for his crimes.

Public apology

Dumfries and Galloway Council made a public apology last year and also agreed to make the ex-gratia payments.

Attempts to sue the council were previously dismissed in court in 2003 as time-barred.

A report to the authority this week says a total of 47 people have been identified as being entitled to payments. "

"Just weeks ago, the mother of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq was jailed, along with her convict boyfriend, for starving her daughter and subjecting her to months of abuse. A High Court judge ruled that Khyra would "in all probability" have survived if welfare officers in Birmingham had acted on concerns that were reported to them and taken her away from the pair.

Baby Peter was 17 months old when he died in August 2007 at the hands of his mother Tracey Connelly, her boyfriend Steven Barker and their lodger Jason Owen. He suffered more than 50 injuries after months of abuse despite over 60 visits from social workers and being placed on the "at risk" register.

In Doncaster, Yorks, a series of serious case reviews uncovered seven cases where children died as a result of suspected abuse or neglect since 2004 after a series of "basic" failings by the social services, the NHS and school teachers.

Sixteen-month old Amy Howson died after three key opportunities were missed by Doncaster authorities before she had her spine snapped in two in a "chilling and brutal" killing in December 2007.

Five months later in the same town, Alfie Goddard was killed by his father, who had a known history of violence and mental health problems as a result of heavy drinking and drugs abuse. Ten separate agencies failed to spot warning signs that the 11-week old boy was at risk of abuse.

In January this year, two boys aged 10 and 11 years old were given an indefinite custodial sentence for "prolonged, sadistic violence" perpatrated on two brothers in Edlington, South Yorkshire, in April, 2009.

The victims were strangled, hit with bricks, made to eat nettles, stripped and forced to sexually abuse each other. The authority responsible for the boys' care admitted that that the attack was ''preventable'' and said "many important lessons'' needed to be learned. "

"Paedophiles convicted of downloading images of child abuse from the internet are not receiving rehabilitation treatment because the sentences they are given are too short, public protection experts warn today. A dossier collected by the probation union, Napo, reveals that typical sentences given to online paedophiles often fall far short of recommendations made by court-appointed experts who prepare pre-sentencing reports for judges.

Together with leading politicians, the union said that it feared failure to provide treatment for people who access images of child abuse means they are more likely to reoffend. "In all cases seen by Napo, participation in a rehabilitation programme was essential to reduce the risk of reoffending," said Harry Fletcher, the union's assistant general secretary.

"Most court reports recommended two to three years' intensive supervision in the community, with participation in a 12-month programme. However, we have gathered numerous examples where convicted offenders received short custodial sentences preventing such participation."

Typical cases featured in the dossier, which will be distributed to MPs this week, include that of a man convicted of possessing 21,000 paedophile images, of which 1,000 involved sadistic behaviour towards a child. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison but came out automatically after nine months and was not given treatment .

Nor was another man found in possession of 24,000 images, who was sentenced to 12 months, but came out at the halfway stage, meaning he spent six months in jail and again received no treatment.

In only two of the 60 cases detailed in Napo's dossier did an offender receive treatment.

The dossier suggests that paedophiles convicted of accessing child abuse images are typically receiving custodial sentences of up to 18 months.

A typical sex offender treatment programme consists of as many as 250 hour-long sessions while a specialist internet offender programme runs for 70 hours. With the average offender completing between one and two hour-long sessions a week, it means that only those who serve at least a year in prison can be placed on a rehabilitation programme.

In 2006, David Middleton, the government's then head of sex offender strategy and programmes, emailed parliament's home affairs select committee warning that changes to the 2003 Sex Offenders Act meant "we have lost the ability for courts to make short prison sentences followed by long licence on sex offender cases unless they are 'serious risk of harm' cases".

Middleton, professor of criminology at De Montfort University, Leicester, said it was vital that people caught accessing images of child abuse were properly assessed and, where appropriate, placed on rehabilitation programmes. A study he published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression showed the programmes have a significant positive impact on underlying behaviour.

Edward Garnier, the shadow attorney general, said it was vital courts saw that people downloading child porn were perpetuating child abuse. "It is not a victimless crime," he added.

Internet paedophilia is a relatively new phenomenon, making the threat it poses difficult to gauge. Around a third of the approximately 1,200 people placed on the sex offenders register each year have accessed child abuse images.

Donald Findlater, director of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a child protection charity, said lack of rehabilitation treatment for convicted offenders had resulted in a surge in paedophiles paying his foundation to attend courses designed to curb their behaviour. "For people with serious addictive problems, locking them up for a short period then letting them out and saying 'don't do it again' is not going to work," he said."

"UNDER-pressure Birmingham social workers are struggling to cope with a record 27,000 cases of alleged child abuse.

That’s the number of referrals social services expects to be asked to deal with in 2009-10 – more than half as many again as in the previous year.

Although the figures include some of the same children being reported more than once, city council officials admit the growing volume of work is taking a considerable toll on staff.

A fifth of social worker posts are vacant in the children’s social services department, which has been criticised for failing to prevent the death of Khyra Ishaq.

And of the social workers on the council’s books, only 39 per cent are qualified to deal with the most serious cases of children thought to be at risk of being harmed.

Reports from the public about suspected child abuse have been rising steadily since the 2007 Baby Peter case in London .

After the death of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, starved by her mother and stepfather despite attempts by social workers to investigate, Birmingham City Council and the police said it was vital that anyone suspecting child abuse should report the matter.

A year ago, Birmingham social services was placed under a government improvement order after standards of care for children at risk were found to be inadequate.

The council is meeting most of the targets set by Ministers and the order is expected to be lifted shortly.

Christine Lynch, assistant children’s services director at the council, said referrals are increasing but attempts to recruit more social workers were bearing fruit, with 60 trainees joining the council recently."

"The European commissioner for home affairs, Cecilia Malmström, is proposing a directive this week to block websites that show images of child abuse.

While tackling such websites is clearly laudable, we should not be misled by a politically motivated and ultimately destructive measure. Europe's approach is in fact counterproductive, dangerous and could ultimately lead to gross abuses against the most vulnerable in society.

The only truly effective way to address these abhorrent crimes is an international measure that has the websites deleted as quickly as possible. All available resources – including resources currently wasted on blocking measures – should be spent on the identification and rescue of victims, and on ensuring that the criminals behind the websites and peer-to-peer trafficking are prosecuted with the full force of the law.

Blocking websites merely offers an illusion of action, reducing pressure for effective policies to be implemented and for the international community to tackle the issue head on.

As a result, citizens are led to believe that something is being done, and politicians can take refuge in a populist policy in the full knowledge that blocking has no positive benefits and leaves the websites online.

It is difficult to understand why policy on this issue is so passive. If there were websites that contained evidence of murder, it would be ludicrous to suggest that they be blocked rather than deleted and all possible efforts made to identify the victims and prosecute the murderers.

It is disturbing to note that every international trade agreement signed by the European Union includes strict requirements on protection of intellectual property, but none contain elements to encourage the removal of child abuse websites. Louis Vuitton handbags and Cartier watches are given a higher priority in international legal co-operation than abused young people.

Despite the lack of effective action, on average there is a new international treaty approximately every two years banning child abuse, with smiling politicians posing for press photos and demonstrating their determination by signing and sometimes even ratifying the agreements.

Yet the "binding" obligation on states party to the United Nations child rights convention (to take all bilateral and multilateral actions to prevent the "exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials") appears to be the victim of global amnesia.

The policy of supporting internet blocking, at either a national or international level, supports and facilitates this inaction.

The internet was designed with the aim of ensuring that any one block on the network can be worked around – this is fundamental to how it works.

Therefore, blocking is almost by definition doomed to failure and a waste of resources that could be deployed more effectively through deleting the information at source. At the core of this issue are real human beings and a technologically inadequate block will do less than nothing to protect them.

Politicians will sometimes argue that blocking will stop deliberate access or that it will stop accidental access to sites or that the aim is to stop commercial distribution of illegal images. But the truth is that it is not only exceptionally easy to evade blocking, it is also ultimately ineffective as sites now move location and web address ever more quickly, so it won't stop deliberate access.

No statistics have been produced to indicate that accidental access of actually illegal sites could either be solved by blocking or that the problem is a major one. For the problem of commercial websites, there is only a limited number of online payment methods, so ensuring a level of law enforcement that would deter subscribers would be a far more wide-reaching solution.

Though blocking is useless, it is becoming an increasingly popular policy, resulting in the censorship of more and more types of information across Europe, thanks to well-funded lobbying campaigns.

The UK recently narrowly avoided legislation requiring blocking of websites to protect intellectual property. Denmark is proposing criminal sanctions for ISPs that provide access to gambling websites and Lithuania is proposing blocking for websites that are considered to endanger the family values defended by its constitution – with all the inherent dangers that this will have for free speech"