Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

By Dr Liz Yardley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This week we have seen 25-year-old Rebecca Shuttleworth receive a minimum sentence of 18 years for the murder of her son, 2-year-old Keanu Williams. The abuse that Keanu experienced led him to suffer more than 35 injuries between November 2010 and January 2011. He died on 9 January 2011 in Ward End, Birmingham.

The NSPCC tells us that the average rate of child homicides has decreased in England and Wales by 30 per cent since 1981 so crimes like this one would appear to be on the decrease. However, few would dispute the view that every instance where a child has lost their life in such circumstances is one instance too many. When I look at the Keanu Williams case, the pictures of this small child looking up to the camera brings to mind Peter Connelly – ‘Baby P’ – another child whose life was so brutally cut short following systematic abuse.

In England and Wales, a child is killed by one of their parents every 10 days. Home Office research tells us that these crimes are committed in roughly equal proportions, by mothers (47 per cent) and fathers (53 per cent).

We’re very quick to point the finger at the failure of children’s services to protect vulnerable children. And indeed, questions need to be asked about the extent to which professionals communicate with one another and take meaningful action – when everyone assumes that everyone else is doing something, fatal consequences can result.

However, the responsibility goes much wider than social services and their colleagues in other agencies. For every child subject to a child protection plan or on a register in the UK the NSPCC estimate that there are likely to be around eight other children who have suffered maltreatment – so who is looking out for these children? I suggest that we all should be. As a society, we have become increasingly good at ‘minding our own business’, particularly when it comes to other people’s family lives.

Would it really be so difficult for us to take more of a genuine interest in the families around us? Amidst further cuts to preventative and early intervention services, some families are seeing problems escalate to crisis levels, feeling that no one cares. Perhaps when we see families around us, struggling or not, shouting at their children or not, it won’t hurt to ask, ‘Are you ok?’. This won’t be the magic bullet that will prevent all child homicides or domestic abuse but it’s a start – at worst you’ll be called a nosy so and so but at best you might be that person who has reached out to someone who otherwise felt isolated and alone.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.