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Features

Fostering Trust

Kerry Kidd

What should be our response when the unthinkable hits the headlines? KERRY KIDD believes the church can help to chart a course between the twin evils of neglecting children and demonising parents.

CHATTING at the soft play centre with a group of other mums, I find I can't keep still. My eyes are constantly swivelling, keeping tabs on my son. I'm not afraid of him falling and hurting himself: the soft play area is built to prevent serious accidents, and anyway his wailing would alert me if he took a slight tumble. No, my fear is of an abductor or a child molester, someone snatching my son whilst I tend to the baby or use the toilet.

We're all scared for our children today. Madeleine McCann's disappearance prompted global headlines and heated debates in toddler groups and dinner parties: 'Would you have left her?' Then the sinister twist - had her parents accidentally killed her and covered up the crime? More recently the disappearance and recovery of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews mined the same vein of distrust. Whatever the whole truth turns out to be, both stories underline a powerful theme in public discourse around children today: the spectre of the bad parent.

Searing autobiographies with titles like Please Daddy No and A Child Called It have brought child abuse onto the bestseller lists. Meanwhile the number of children taken into care at birth rises drastically year on year . Some, like Liberal Democrat MP John Hammon and the Justice for Families group, believe the rush to adopt children is driven by the need to meet Government adoption targets. Social service departments with an unusually high rate of infants taken into care at birth (like Stoke-on-Trent, where it has doubled in three years) defend the policy by pointing to the high rate of drug addiction in their areas. Others see a more deep-rooted shift taking place, that as a society we are hitting a crisis of confidence in the idea of parenting.

A COMPLICIT CHURCH?
The Christian church is deeply entangled in these debates. The Gospel paints a clear message: Jesus valued children. He asked for them to be welcomed into the heart of his ministry, brushing aside the concerns of those who wished to marginalise their role. But of course, as countless scandals have demonstrated, both the Catholic and Protestant churches have themselves contained those who have used their contact with unsuspecting families to abuse young children and to cover up the results.

This makes it exceptionally hard for the church to have a voice in these debates today. Christians are rightly wary of hypocrisy, of speaking out against abuse in society while condoning or missing it under their noses. Dare to suggest that society as a whole is over-zealous in child protection and you'll rightly be referred to terrible stories like that of Victoria Climbie, tortured and murdered while social workers seemingly did nothing. Nevertheless, the Christian message of love and hope remains crucial if we are to strike a balance between protecting vulnerable children from abusive situations and supporting vulnerable parents to look after them. Sometimes these parents are victims of childhood abuse themselves.

WANTING WHAT'S BEST
Fran Lyons famously emigrated to Sweden whilst pregnant last year, rather than have her newborn child Molly taken into care at birth. As a teenager, Lyons had suffered from mental health problems following a rape. While confidentiality laws surrounding child protection cases make it impossible to know the exact nature of social workers' concerns, Northumberland County Council has confirmed that a crucial factor in their planned removal of Lyons' baby was the fear that she might in future develop Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy - an extremely rare syndrome, whose very existence is disputed by some doctors, in which mother harms the child to gain attention.

Lyons claims she is being treated very differently by the Swedish social services - successfully breastfeeding, and receiving help from supportive social workers while she learns, as all new parents must, the wisest way to care for her child. 'The UK system seems to assume that parents require legal compulsion to do what's best for their children,' she told Third Way. 'It also assumes guilt - even prior to there being a crime. Risk and guilt aren't the same thing - and risk, in most cases, can be managed if we decide to make keeping babies with their mothers a priority until facts rather than opinions are known.'

One of the wisest social workers I know commented that her job was to help prevent abuse from two sources, individuals and the State. The only justification for removing children from their parents is that sometimes it is a lesser form of abuse. Some children are clearly better off without their parents, other parents need significant help in order to manage. Is this a role where the church can come to be of use?

IMPRISONED BY NEGLECT
As an Anglican ordinand on placement in three British prisons, I have occasionally come across cases where either I or the staff felt uncomfortable about the grounds for charges of serious child abuse or neglect against a prisoner. Prison chaplaincy is desperately needed to support those convicted - rightly or wrongly - of serious crimes against children. The pecking order in prison culture means they have to be held in segregation for their own safety, often disowned by their families and friends. The chaplain is often the only person prepared to offer the gift of friendship and love.

When the parents of Madeleine McCann were made official suspects, Portuguese crowds began to boo and some sections of the British media turned ugly. But true to its tradition of hospitality, the British and Portuguesse Catholic church remained a source of consolation and support. That is as it should be, and they would have remained available to the couple had the suspicions resulted in charges or jail.

Christianity therefore has a mission to the accused. But it also has a responsibility to put its own house in order. The Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have gone to great lengths to instil codes of practice and safety checks to ensure that the widespread abuses of former years should never happen again. Even better, child protection training is now obligatory for all in leadership, so that they know how to identify and report signs of abuse and neglect amongst children coming into the church. But viewed in isolation from our social mission towards the vulnerable, child protection concerns can result in witch-hunting, an unChristian desire to expel the suspected evil rather than prevent it.

Churches today contain many generations of parenting experience. Is there not a way
that this can be offered to the community? It can be done in small ways, like setting up supportive toddler groups, pram services or mother-and-baby coffee mornings. These are often seen as a form of missionary service, but their ability to connect with the struggling mum or dad has the potential to do as much good as encouraging new people into church. It could be bigger initiatives, like hosting Sure Start activities or hiring a family support worker. It could take the form of parenting classes, or offers of home help to those struggling with a new baby, a change in family circumstances, a wayward child.

Struggling parents need help, not condemnation, and by supporting parents, children are helped too. By stepping into the breach, is it possible that Christians could contribute to keeping more families together in the first place?

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1 See: www.justice-for-families.org.uk/stats/firstintocare.html