If you had identified a risk factor for a condition which would not only blight one life, but that if left untreated could well prove hereditary, what would you do? Would you prescribe the most recent and effective remedy, or would you return to antediluvian solutions, which by the very existence of the condition you are seeking to treat have been proven ineffective?
Whenever the DWP’s welfare proposals are criticised, the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith & his supporters are quick to respond thus: IDS sympathises with the plight of the poor. He frets about the lives of children brought up chaotic households and he wants to stop a destructive inter-generational cycle of poverty and neglect from continuing.
In the course of his self-appointed quest, we are told IDS has done serious research, visited the afflicted, and even founded a think tank, the Centre for Social Justice to explore these issues and propose solutions.
In assessing the actual utility of all this, there are 2 aspects which need to be considered: firstly, is the research from which IDS claims authority being accurately interpreted and represented. Secondly, will the policies which result have the desired effect in people’s lives?
Amongst the many statements IDS has made about poverty and its causes, one of the most serious is that abuse and neglect affect brain size and development in very young children, which in turn affects their propensity to claim welfare, their intelligence, their propensity to drug addiction, their ability to empathise, and to develop mental health problems. Indeed, the cover of the report he co-authored with Graham Allen MP, featured two brain scans, which we were told showed the difference between a child from a loving, stable home and one who had grown up suffering abuse and neglect. This scan and this interpretation of the original paper in which the scans are presented as evidence, have been widely reproduced in discussions of social and welfare policy.
However: the original paper ( http://www.cchdnewengland.com/files/brain-general-development-explained.pdf) doesn’t make this claim. Or at least not in the way IDS says that it does. The original paper does indeed say that there is a correlate between neglect and brain development but it makes clear that it was children subjected to ‘Global Neglect’, defined as ‘minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions’, (some children in the ‘Global Neglect’ sub-group had been kept in darkened rooms in cages), that were far more likely to have abnormal CT scans.
‘Indeed, in some severe deprivation situations, sensory deprivation or sensory disorganisation during critical or sensitive periods can result in permanent dysfunction’. Note well: ‘some’ and ‘can’ not ‘all’ and ‘will’. So, even at the extreme end of the spectrum of neglect, the authors are unable to absolutely predict that such damage will occur.
When using the phrase ‘neglected children’ in the context of social policy, the ghastly scenario of a baby kept in a cage in a dark room is not what is typically meant. Poor nutrition, missed school days, poor hygiene, too few toys, and yes, not enough love, but crucially, not an absolute absence of any human warmth.
The children in the ‘Chaotic Neglect’ subgroup’s (whose criteria most closely resemble ‘typical’ neglect) ratio of ‘Normal’ to ‘Abnormal’ brain scans was 18:1. In other words, it is only in cases of extreme abuse that the abnormality IDS refers to is more likely to be found. So, either IDS has misunderstood the research or he has deliberately chosen to misrepresent it. I’m not sure which is worse, frankly.
Government policy has consistently associated this ‘Chaotic Neglect’ with households living in inter-generational poverty, an association picked up on by their supporters in the media, and which has found its policy expression in the Troubled Families Programme¹. As a result all poor households are increasingly characterised as being at a higher absolute risk of experiencing and causing the problems associated with intense neglect, an assumption which is certainly not backed up by the findings of the original paper, which says nothing about the socio-economic background of the children studied.
There is an uncorrected elision between the original research, with its extremely limited claims about children who have suffered extreme abuse and neglect, the findings of the IDS/Allen report, and reports in the media, that poor children’s brains are damaged, it will affect the rest of their lives, and there is nothing, really, that can be done about it outside of a very small window of opportunity. (See : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/children_shealth/9637682/Whats-the-difference-between-these-two-brains.html for an example, particularly the paragraph discussing the failure of probation to address offending behaviour).
This seems to me to be both a counsel of despair and an insult to those already engaged in Early Intervention work, which to listen to some in the commentariat is a new invention by IDS and the CSJ, which, I have on good authority, it isn’t. Furthermore, there is a deep confusion in the tone of government pronouncements: on the one hand, we are told families in crisis ‘will be supported’, on the other, the Prime Minister talks about ‘Neighbours from Hell’.
All this is being played out against the backdrop of austerity, with its cuts and freezes affecting both the incomes of families and the services they need to address their problems. Early Intervention is being talked up not only as a worthy enterprise in itself, but as a way of saving money. On the basis of the government’s revealed ideological preferences (IDS has agreed to a further £10bn in welfare cuts), it seems clear which will take precedence.
Mr Duncan Smith wants us to believe that his remedies for families in crisis are sympathetic to their situation. But just as the research he cites is not quite what he claims, neither is this sympathetic cure:
Sympathetic medicine is a form of traditional medicine in which people are treated with things which physically relate to their medical conditions. For example, sympathetic treatments for eye conditions would use eyes, in the theory that the power of the eye could be transferred to the patient, thereby curing the condition. Although sympathetic medicine is an important part of many folklore traditions, it should come as no surprise to learn that it is often not terribly effective.
IDS would ‘cure’ poverty, abuse and neglect, with more poverty, abuse and neglect, inflicted by the government of which he is a member. His ‘sympathetic cure’, based as it is on research he has either misinterpreted or misrepresented is arguably no better than no cure at all.
¹This isn’t the place to explore the problems with the Troubled Families evidential base: but for a forensic debunking I recommend looking at Jonathon Portes posts on this topic: http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/government-continues-to-abuse-data-on.html and http://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/families-from-hell-who-is-prime.html