Not Saussure

September 5, 2006

Polly, Tony and high-risk families; predicting the future and learning from history

Filed under: ASBOs for fetuses, civil liberties, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 2:19 pm

I don’t quite follow this. Polly Toynbee advises us, of Tony Blair’s speech to child poverty experts and economists at the Joseph Rowntree Fountation, If the prime minister sounds menacing, just ignore him.

She goes on to explain, of the Sure Start programme, that

Whatever Blair implies today, this policy is not about punishment. As now, coercion only applies when children are perilously close to entering care. If offered the right help, most parents take it gladly: the birth of a child is a moment when health visitors are welcomed in.

But she’s just explained that

They [Directors of Services] estimate 2.5% of families are in the deepest trouble – the addicts, the mentally ill or those who shun all officialdom. Some of their children may become “menaces to society”: most will lead miserable, stunted childhoods and never recover. Those first three years of life are critical – a short window to intervene but a lifetime for a child. The government is watching results from the Incredible Years programme pioneered by Dr Judy Hutchings in Sure Start in Wales: children of 42% of parents on the highly structured scheme showed lasting behaviour improvement, compared with just 7% in a control group.

Presumably, though, the PM’s remarks about how

If we are not prepared to predict and intervene far more early then there are children who are growing up – in families which we know are dysfunctional – and the kids a few years down the line are going to be a menace to society and actually a threat to themselves

were directed not at the ‘most families’ who gladly accept the right help when it’s offered — what they consider the right help, that is, rather than necessarily what Polly Toynbee or anyone else may, correctly or incorrectly, think is right. Nor were they directed at the 42% of the families whose children benefitted from the assistance offered by Sure Start; they must have been intented to refer, at least, to the 58% who don’t, and — apparently — to even more people, since he went on to say that ‘Families with drug and alcohol problems were being identified too late’.

Indeed, now that he’s delivered his speech, he’s clarified the matter:

I am saying that where it is clear, as it very often, at a young age, that children are at risk of being brought up in a dysfunctional home where there are multiple problems, say of drug abuse or offending, then instead of waiting until the child goes off the rails, we should act early enough … to prevent it.

So what steps does he propose to take to this end? The speech continues,

The social exclusion plan will be guided by five principles: early intervention, systematically identifying what works, better co-ordination of the many separate agencies, personal rights and responsibilities and intolerance of poor performance.

More than anything else, early intervention is crucial. It is a commonplace that prevention is better than cure

What ‘poor performance’ — I assume here he means poor performance on the part of the families and children rather than the social workers — has he in mind, and what steps does he say must be taken to express our intolerance of it?

As I understand the argument, we can see, or think we can, cases where ‘that child’s going to be trouble when he grows up, mark my words; something ought to be done about it. I blame the parents’, so something should be done about it, and sooner rather than later. And most of the time we’ll be right.

But what worries me is what that something is and how easy it is to slip from ‘something should’ to ‘this must be done, on the basis of my predictions about what’ll happen if it doesn’t and I will enforce it’.

We’ve seen what can happen when Mr Blair constructs foreign policy on this basis; we’ve seen what happens when Home Secretaries decide, on the basis of intelligence assessments, that individuals are likely to engage in some, possibly as yet unplanned, terrorist activity at some point in the future.

We’ve also seen what can happen when well-meaning social workers detect ‘classic signs of ritual satanic abuse’; I’m endebted to Google and Skeptic Files for at last finding me an article I well remember reading in 1990 in The Independent on Sunday, which traced — while it was going on — the origins of the scare. I recall it because I was struck by the absurdity of trained professionals swallowing, as they did, expert advice like

A list of “satanic indicators” was sent by Ms Klein to help social workers. Classic signs and symptoms are said to include an unusual preoccupation with urine and faeces, fear of ghosts and monsters, aggressive play, and the child being “clingy”, reciting nursery rhymes with indecent overtones, suffering from nightmares and bed wetting, preoccupation with “passing gas”, using mouth to make “gas sounds” and wild laughter when the child or someone else “passes gas”.

And we all know what happened as a result.

If someone’s going to take coercive powers to prevent a possible problem arising at some point in the future, I want to be very sure indeed that they’re going to get things right.


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