Monday, 13 August 2007

Blinded by empathy

The strategy we are pursuing to protect children is flawed because we misunderstand the nature of the danger they face. A series of high profile but atypical cases have led us to give too great an emphasis to the threat posed to children by strangers and not enough to the threat from their own family.

When I was at primary school, we were constantly warned about 'stranger danger.' This campaign was inspired in part by the murder of Jamie Bulger which had happened a few years before hand. The problem with this is that children are far more likely to be at risk from people they know.

The Home offices figures on homicides amongst the under-16s show that nearly half of them were committed by the victims parents and that an individual is three times as likely to be murder by someone they know than by a stranger. Even these figures do not tell the whole story because if you were to take out teenagers then the portion killed by strangers would fall still further.

Yet it is not the stories of children suffering at the hands of their families that makes the headlines. The murders of the Sarah Payne, Holy Wells and Jessica Chapman and now presumably Madeline McCan are all examples of the minority of cases where the killer is a stranger. This is probably because these cases play to the fears: many parents worry that they will be unable to protect their children, few fear that they will themselves be the source of the danger. It is far easier to comprehend some twisted stranger murdering a child than someone is supposed to love and protect them doing so.

This may be an unavoidable part of life but media attention should not be allowed to dictate public policy or public perception in the way that it all too often does. The revulsion at the murder of Sarah Payne led to demands led to demands for a 'Sarah's law' that would give the public information on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. Such a law is undesirable for a number of reasons: it encourages vigilante violence, it makes it harder to rehabilitate offenders but worst of all it encourages people to see pedophiles as the 'stranger danger' and consequently lowers our vigilance towards the danger from friends and family.

It is too easy to get pulled in by individual cases. The unfolding tragedy in Portugal is just the latest heart wrenching tale that can distort our view and lead us to make bad judgments about what we should be doing to protect children.

Update: This story has rather been overtaken by events. I think that my main point still stands even if the particular example may not.

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