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News : Research Underlines Risk of Violent Child Abuse

12 February 2007

News Risks of Violent Child Abuse
New research by Professor Colin Pritchard (pictured) and Tony Sayers on the risk of violent child abuse.

New research finds the risk of children being murdered by strangers is reassuringly low, but that the dangers posed by a very small group of offenders tends to be underrated. The study estimates the numbers of extra-family Violent Child Sex Abusers in the UK at any one time and calculates their murder rate and their fatal risk to children [5-14]. The research, by Professor Colin Pritchard and Tony Sayers of The School of Health & Social Care at Bournemouth University , examined a decade of all child homicides from a 4% sample of the UK population, and analysed the profiles of people who killed children. The profiles of the extra-family murderers were projected onto the UK male population to estimate how many such men there are in the community at any one time, and, how many go on to kill. Professor Pritchard said, “High profile child murders lead parents to fear for their children’s safety, but perception of risk is often at variance with reality and our results place the dangers in a better perspective, which is needed to redress the climate of fear surrounding our children.”

“While 85-90% of all child homicides are killed by `within-family’ assailants, of the `extra-family’ child killers, all were Child Sex Abusers [CSAs]. However, it was the least frequent type of CSA, the `Violent’ CSA, who were responsible for 80% of all `extra-family’ child murders, whose victims were aged 5 years and over.

In addition to their sex crimes against children, these men also had multi-criminal records, with at least one previous conviction for violence, hence designated as violent-multi-criminal-child-sex-abusers [VMCCSA].

There are about 912 VMCCSA in the UK population at any one time .

Based upon the latest UK 5-year average child homicides [5-14], annually there were 16 confirmed murders whose killers were probably `extra-family assailants, out of an average of 40 child homicides a year (1998-2002).

While these numbers are reassuringly small (the risk to any child of 14 and under is only 0.00014% a year or ten times less than the risk of road fatalities, where the risk is 0.00138) - each Violent-MCCSA poses a risk more than 80 times greater than the most frequent kind of `within-family’ homicide assailant, mothers.

Out of 912 VMCCSA men, less than 2% went on to kill. It is not known how to predict which of those 912 will become murderers, but epidemiologically the group as a whole poses a considerable risk.

Professor Pritchard commented, “While the vast majority of these potential assailants did not kill, comparatively they are extremely dangerous. Given that they can remain dangerous for 25-30 years or more this group poses a substantial risk to children. These 912 VMCCSA men are identifiable before the murders happen because they have a conviction for violence as well as known paedophilia. Perhaps we need to consider more carefully what to do about them, and where the balance of safety should lie.”

A significant number of child abusers were themselves victims of abuse as children, and the most frequent type of non-violent abuser has a very high suicide rate, showing some degree of remorse, indicating, according to Prof Pritchard, that they are probably `treatable’. “However, on present knowledge, the violent-MCCSA is probably not `treatable’ and it is recommended that courts should consider a `reviewable’ sentence for such men”.

Professor Pritchard concluded, “There are two lessons. One is that the risk per child is very, very low. Consequently we are in danger of stealing our children’s childhoods by acting in a paranoid manner, not letting children out, and being over-protective about who can come into contact with them. On the other hand there is this tiny cadre of extremely dangerous men and everyone must be worried about the exceptional risks they pose. They have shown that they have laid aside their humanity and until they are ready to take up their humanity again, they should stay in custody until they can demonstrate that they are safe to live amongst us. Unpalatable though it might be, it is too acute a dilemma to resolve easily and safely for we have to differentiate between a headache and a brain tumour.”

Pritchard C & Sayers T;”Exploring potential `extra-familial’ child homicide assailants in the UK and estimating their homicide rate: perception of risk – the need for debate”; British Journal of Social Work 36.

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