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A Presidential account of our developing knowledge of child abuse

Sir Andrew McFarlane’s speech on our increased understanding of the subject of child abuse

Another week, another speech by the President of the Family Division. Last week I wrote here about the speech that Sir Andrew McFarlane gave recently to a conference held by the Support Through Court charity, in which he gave an overview of domestic abuse allegations in family proceedings. Since then our loquacious leader has been at it again, this time giving the inaugural Baroness Butler-Sloss Family Law Lecture, with the intriguing title “If only we had known then what we know now”.

Baroness Butler-Sloss

Before I look at what he had to say, a few words about the eponymous heroine of the lecture, for the benefit of those readers who don’t know who she is (where have you been?). In family law circles Baroness Butler-Sloss truly needs no introduction, but I will give her one anyway (given all her achievements, it could easily fill this post, but I will keep it very brief). As explained in her Wikipedia entry, the Baroness was the first female Lord Justice of Appeal and, until 2004, was the highest-ranking female judge in the United Kingdom. She was herself the President of the Family Division, the first woman to hold the post, between 1999 and 2005, when she retired. She famously chaired both the Cleveland child abuse inquiry in 1987 and the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. She was made a life peer in 2006 and even today, at the age of 86, she remains an active member of the House of Lords, often speaking on family law-related matters. She was also, as the current President mentioned, present to hear her successor give the first lecture in her honour.

OK, so to the speech. It is quite long, so I will not be going through it piecemeal, rather just picking out a couple of salient points. I strongly recommend that interested readers read the whole speech, which can be found at the link below.

Sir Andrew McFarlane’s speech

The title of the speech is, of course, a reference to our increased understanding of the subject of child abuse, and perhaps also a lament for the thousands of children who suffered as a result of the historic limitations in that understanding. The President demonstrates how the understanding has increased by looking at the history of the topic, dropping off at various stages in that history, including the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the sexual abuse concerns of the 1970s and 80s (which led to the aforementioned Cleveland Inquiry).

As an early example of the issue of child abuse the President mentions the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, which took place in New York in 1874:

“Mary Ellen Wilson was a nine-year-old girl who was regularly beaten by her foster parents and was, eventually, found malnourished and confined to her bedroom. Her suffering was discovered by a missionary, Ellen Wheeler, who was unable to persuade the authorities to intervene due to the countervailing legal right for parents and guardians to discipline their children as they wished. As a last resort, she contacted Henry Bergh of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who, together with Elbridge Gerry, initiated court action. The case was heavily publicised and caused a public outcry, leading to Gerry and Bergh forming the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.”

I had not heard of this story previously. It is certainly a sharp reminder of how far we have come.

The wider picture

Moving much further on, the President steps back from his historical account, to

“look at the bigger picture and ask whether it is by chance that our knowledge has developed in the way that it has, or are we following a more widely accepted path that either has been or will be, replicated in other countries?”

The short answer, he says,

“is that the journey upon which we have embarked, and continue to travel, is familiar across the world.”

This cannot be surprising as the problem of child abuse is, sadly, ubiquitous.

The President continues by looking at how we have grown to understand that child abuse takes many forms, including physical abuse, emotional abuse and other forms. And then, as he explains, there has been a relatively recent shift away from a focus on abuse to a focus upon the harm that the child has suffered, or may suffer, as enshrined in the Children Act 1989. And nothing stands still – as the President points out, the concept of harm “has continued to evolve as courts face modern-day issues which were almost certainly not within the contemplation of those who drafted the Children Act, only 30 years ago.” One such issue, he mentions, is the radicalisation of children by parents who seek to travel to areas of the world controlled by Islamist extremist organisations.

The President concludes by pointing out that the history of our knowledge and understanding of child abuse demonstrates that there is of course no ground to be complacent:

“There is no basis for thinking that our current understanding demonstrates that, at last, ‘we have got it right’ and that we will not learn more in the future. On the contrary, one of the great interests of a life practicing in family law is the confidence with which one can predict that, in the future we will undoubtedly know more, and understand more, than we do now.”

You can read the whole of Sir Andrew McFarlane’s speech here.

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John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers.

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